Nearly 30 years after the Anglican and United churches broke off merger talks, the two denominations are again discussing closer ties – but a merger is not on the table.
“It’s still in an exploratory phase, a problem-solving phase,” said Canon Alyson Barnett-Cowan, director of faith, worship and ministry with the Anglican Church of Canada. “It’s aimed at getting to understand each other better and to co-operate better in shared ministry,” said Rev. Robert Mills, a retired United Church of Canada minister and co-chair of the dialogue group.
This spring, the group’s next meeting will coincide with a national conference on shared ministry to be held April 18 to 21 in Saskatoon, sponsored by the Prairie Centre for Ecumenism.
Nationally, some 50 parishes (many of them in small communities in the West) operate under shared ministry, where a clergyperson of one denomination oversees congregations of both. “We have no common national policy on shared ministry, no national rules. For instance, do you use grape juice or wine (at the eucharist)? Do you participate in synod?” said Ms. Barnett-Cowan.
“One of the things we are looking at is seeing if a shared ministry is fully shared. There is still a problem with a United church minister appointed to a shared ministry if the Anglican bishop is not willing to give the minister the right to celebrate the eucharist for Anglicans,” said Mr. Mills.
“We are also trying to understand each other’s theology. We’re discussing sacramental theology – why we do the things we do sacramentally – and see if we could come up with some kind of agreement similar to what the Anglican and Lutheran churches came up with,” he said.
The committee is also discussing ecumenical theological education, meeting with faculty members and examining how students come to understand the other’s tradition.
In 2001, the Anglican church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada agreed to enter a closer relationship called Full Communion, recognizing each other’s clergy and sacraments and increasing communication and involvement.
The discussions leading up to that agreement influenced the Anglican-United relationship, said Ms. Barnett-Cowan. “Around 1998 or ’99, Peter Wyatt, the ecumenical officer for the United Church said he felt as if his nose was pressed against the glass (watching the Anglican-Lutheran talks).” Some exploratory talks took place between Anglicans and United church leaders in shared ministry around the country and they recommended a continuing process, which was approved by both national churches.
The current dialogue, which began in February 2003, is the first formal set of conversations between the two since the Plan of Union (which would have seen a new church emerge with a new name such as the Church of Christ in Canada) collapsed in 1975 due to opposition from Anglican bishops.
That process had still left some scars, as three people on the eight-person discussion group were involved with their churches in 1975. One of them was Mr. Mills. “The Anglican bishops had difficulties with the thought of ordination by anyone other than a bishop,” he recalled. “In the United church, the conference ordains. It is a conciliar system versus an episcopal system. It was difficult for those two systems to come together.”
When the current talks started, Ms. Barnett-Cowan said, “we heard that they felt betrayed when the Anglican bishops pulled the plug. People said they were sad that we (the two churches) hadn’t had much of a relationship. The United church had felt isolated when they went through their wrangling over homosexuality.”
However, larger issues came to the fore. “There was a feeling that we share in the Canadian reality: a lot of people don’t go to church, it’s a multi-faith reality – maybe we could help each other,” she said.