Representatives of both the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the Episcopal Church recently gathered for the winter meeting of the Bilateral Dialogues between the two denominations. The latest round of conversation centered around the draft “Episcopal-Presbyterian Agreement on Local Sharing of Ministries,” which was commended for study and feedback by both the 80th General Convention (2022) of the Episcopal Church and the 225th General Assembly of the PC(USA) (2022).
The Dialogue invited participants to offer their perspectives and insights on the draft. Invited guests included the Very Rev. Dr. Cynthia Briggs Kittredge (president/dean and professor of New Testament at the Episcopal Seminary of the Southwest), the Rev. Sarah Gaventa (dean of students at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary), the Rev. Matt Gaventa (senior pastor of University Presbyterian Church in Austin, Texas), the Rev. Sallie Watson (general presbyter of the Mission Presbytery), and the Rev. David Simmons (rector of St. Matthias Episcopal Church in Waukesha, Wisconsin). The Rev. Dr. José Irizarry (president of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary) joined the Dialogue for dinner fellowship.
“The two big takeaways of this meeting of the Dialogue were coming to terms with the realities of our churches and the realities of the world around us to which the draft Agreement seeks to address,” said the Rev. Dr. Neal D. Presa, co-vice chair. “Notwithstanding the deeply held conviction of the historic episcopate as the principal expression of what is meant by ‘apostolic succession,’ our two churches are committed to doing ministry together and in each other’s church polities within certain bounds. And second, the world around us is not waiting for our two churches to agree on things: God’s mission is happening with or without us.”
Dialogue member Dr. Michael Booker presented findings from extensive U.S. demographic research on the level of religiosity among Americans in the past 20 years. The research, he says, took into account age, generational cohorts, socioeconomic condition and gender. While the denominations are smaller than they once were and continue to age, the research shows that those who remain are faithful and those who don’t identify as belonging to any church don’t see a need to do so. Nondenominational churches are experiencing a rise in members, but the rate of increase has come from nondenominational members transferring to other nondenominational churches.
“Dr. Booker’s presentation is a sobering reminder that my sons’ generation — the so-called Generation Z (born at the turn of the century) — care less about religious structures that stifle making impact in the world around us. Across generations, even as the study noted a decline in commitment to different forms of American Christianity, those who are committed are fervent in their commitment,” Presa said. “People are looking for community, but community that makes a difference in the world, where tangible impact for justice matches or exceeds the faith which we profess.”
The Dialogue formed a sub-team that will draft edits for review during an online meeting on March 29. A final in-person meeting will be held next fall to finalize the Agreement. The final report and a proposal for a fourth round of Dialogues will be submitted to both the 226th General Assembly (2024) and the Episcopal Church’s 81st General Convention (2024).
“Ecumenical engagement and the relationships that are engendered takes time, it takes mutual understanding, it takes patience,” said Presa. “We are grateful for this opportunity to build upon the decades of previous work between our two churches. We have come a long way and we hope that as we move into a next season of relationships and engagements we will do so with creativity and flexibility in doing mission together and strive for more visible and closer unity between our two communions for the sake of justice in the world.”
The two denominations have been conducting bilateral dialogue since 2000 in an effort to deepen ties and work together. The first round of the dialogue resulted in an 11-point agreement between the PC(USA) and the Episcopal Church and was ratified by both bodies in 2008. The second and third rounds of dialogue grew out of the first conversations.