By Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal
OXFORD – As the sun set on a spring-like day in Oxford, members of the two faiths greeted each other as old friends, and relived decades spent together in life and ministry.
They were Episcopalians and United Methodists. They were neighbors and co-workers, fellow laborers in the vineyard of the Lord, all gathered to honor John and Charles Wesley, the brothers whose reforms planted the seeds of Methodism.
Inside the parish hall of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, just a few blocks off the Ole Miss campus, Lucia Holloway and Angie Chandler enjoyed the company.
Amid smiles and laughter the ladies remembered when, unlike today, unfortunate circumstances brought Episcopalians and Methodists together.
In January 1949 fire claimed the sanctuary of Water Valley Methodist Church, Holloway recalled, and the members of the nearby Episcopal Church of the Nativity gladly volunteered their church as a temporary worship space.
Thirty-five years later, the Methodists returned the favor, welcoming in Nativity members after a deadly tornado destroyed their church.
Across the room, St. Peter’s parishioners Robert Stewart and his wife, Sunshine, talked about a monthly meeting they attend in Calhoun City.
“There’s two Catholic nuns, a Methodist preacher and us,” said Sunshine, laughing.
The meetings are informal, she said, but they’re a safe environment where she and her friends can have serious, good-natured discussions about faith.
Sometimes, Robert said, he and Sunshine discuss with the Methodist preacher the possibility of Episcopalians and United Methodists joining in full communion.
“I think it would be a terrific thing, and I think it’s very possible,” said Robert. “It’s plain to see we have a lot in common.”
For years Episcopalians and United Methodists have talked informally about the possibility of entering into full communion, and over the past decade they’ve intensified their discussions.
Full communion would essentially mean, as the Rt. Rev. Duncan Gray III, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Mississippi said at the Oxford gathering on March 3, that the two churches could “swap clergy.”
Within the bonds of full communion an ordained United Methodist minister could serve as a priest does in an Episcopal congregation and vice versa. Members of the two churches could also continue doing what they already do, receiving communion in each other’s churches and working together in service, but with the full, explicit blessing of both churches at the highest level.
As he spoke at the social, which preceded a joint celebration of Holy Communion at nearby Oxford-University United Methodist Church, Gray stood beside his friend and colleague, Bishop Hope Morgan Ward, leader of the Mississippi Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Two years ago, Gray and Ward signed what Gray called an unprecedented agreement, the “Covenant for Common Life,” a document that challenges Methodists and Episcopalians throughout the state to worship, study and serve together in order to advance the conversation about communion.
Before he addressed the gathering, Gray said that working things out on a theological level is important, but the essence of communion is really the relationships that exist between members of the two churches throughout the state.
On its website, the Episcopal Diocese lists several examples of Methodists and Episcopalians working together, as in Holly Springs, where Christ Episcopal Church and First United Methodist Church, along with a Presbyterian church, hold a joint vacation Bible school each summer.
As parishioners inside St. Peter’s set out snacks and beverages for the social, outside first and second graders romped and squealed under the watchful eyes of volunteers.
Since the late 1980s the Leap Frog program has provided free, after-school tutoring and structured activities for local children, some of whom are referred by their school teachers because they’re in danger of falling behind academically.
Leap Frog is a joint program of St. Peter’s and its neighbor and long-time partner in ministry, OU United Methodist.
“The churches are like the grandparents of Leap Frog,” said Teresa Adams, who coordinates the Leap Frog volunteers, many of whom are students at the University of Mississippi. This semester they’re ministering to some 95 children.
According to Will Voss, a volunteer who’s studying at Ole Miss to be a child psychologist, many of the Leap Frog children are being raised by their grandparents, and they don’t’ get the specialized attention they need to succeed in school.
The tutoring and attention he and other volunteers provide, Voss said, makes a difference.
Voss smiled and watched as little A.J. Strong shot across the playground like a flash, chasing a ball he’d kicked into the air.
“I like it when they help me with my homework,” said Strong, catching his breath. “I like snack, too.”
Reflecting on the shared emphasis on social justice between his own United Methodist Church and the Episcopal Church, the Rev. Warren Black, pastor of OU Methodist, said St. Peter’s has often led the way in ministering to the marginalized.
Black pointed out that in 1962, Bishop Gray’s father and predecessor in the Episcopal chair, the Rt. Rev. Duncan Gray Jr., spoke out against racism when few others would. He was a voice of tolerance and reason, Black said, when many in Oxford vehemently opposed James Meredith’s integration of the University of Mississippi.
“They (Episcopalians) are, I think, where we work to be, on the very forefront of working across racial lines, of supporting marginal persons,” said Black.
When the two denominations join hands for social justice, Black said, as St. Peter’s and OU Methodist have for years, it presents a powerful witness.
“The world really looks at how well we work together, at what difference we’re making in our local communities,” said Black.
“Our credibility depends on that, I believe, and we’re certainly delighted to have an ongoing friendship and partnership with St. Peter’s.”
In addition to the Leap Frog program, OU Methodist and St. Peter’s, along with several other Oxford churches, support the Oxford Medical Ministries Clinic, which on Tuesdays and Wednesdays provides medical services to the working, under-insured of Lafayette County.
Although he departed from traditional, Anglican practice by incorporating outdoor preaching and rural evangelism into his ministry, John Wesley remained a minister of the Church of England all his life.
Methodism was once known as the Methodist Episcopal Church, a name that reveals the similarity in the two churches’ theological pedigrees.
The denominations gradually grew apart, but there remains today a kind of fluidity between the Episcopal Church and the United Methodist Church.
There are real differences, to be sure, such as in how each church understands the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and in their theologies of bishops.
Still, though, it isn’t hard to find an Episcopalian who used to be a Methodist, or vice versa, and they tend to describe their transitions as incremental shifts rather than quantum leaps.
“I see a great, beautiful harmony between these two churches. I see warmth, grace and acceptance,” said St. Peter’s parishioner Mary Ann Connell, who grew up Methodist in Louisville and started attending Sunday school at OU Methodist when she enrolled at Ole Miss in 1955.
That Sunday school class also included former Ole Miss chancellor, Robert Khayat, who, like Connell, later became an Episcopalian.
Long-time Ole Miss administrator and teacher, and St. Peter’s parishioner, Gloria Kellum, recalled working with OU Methodist members organizing a joint vacation Bible school some 25 years ago.
Oxford might still have been considered a small town then, and Kellum sees the ever-deepening relationship between Methodists and Episcopalians as potentially being of great benefit to the faithful in a rural state like Mississippi.
United Methodists are the largest, mainline Protestant denomination in the state, but most of the 1,142 churches have fewer than 50 members in the pew each Sunday.
There are only about 20,000 baptized Episcopalians in Mississippi, worshiping in 88 congregations.
It would seem a natural fit, Kellum said, for two churches so close in their views of theology and mission to work together.
“We bring different things to the table, of course, but I see an opportunity to mutually strengthen one another,” said Kellum, whose older brother, now deceased, was an Episcopal priest in her home state of Louisiana.
In addition to the long-standing working and social relationships members of OU Methodist and St. Peter’s enjoy, the next step, according to St. Peter’s rector, the Rev. Taylor Moore, is beginning a group study called “Make Us One With Christ.”
The purpose of the study, which was produced as a joint effort of the United Methodist and Episcopal churches, is to collect input from lay members of both churches about how they can grow together.
After weeks of discussion, the members will make recommendations to their respective governing bodies – the Vestry, for members of St. Peter’s, the Administrative Council for OU Methodist members.
“We don’t know exactly where it will lead, but we’re excited about lay people being involved and we feel it represents a new level of intentionality in looking at our relationship,” said Moore.
In his remarks at St. Peter’s, Gray made a statement that caused everybody to stop and consider just how close his denomination is to the United Methodist Church in its overall outlook.
“The United Methodist Church enjoys full communion with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America,” he said.
“The Episcopal Church enjoys full communion with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, as well as with the Moravian Church,” he added, smiling a little. The Moravian Church is a Protestant denomination that traces its roots to the 15th century in what is today the Czech Republic.
Ward then stepped forward and sounded the same note of optimism.
Like Gray, she based her comments not so much on intellectual or theological reasoning, but true to Wesley’s vision, and perhaps appropriately on his and his brother’s feast day, on mission and outreach.
“The ecumenical movement is not for the sake of the church,” she said, as she looked over the room, where Methodist and Episcopal clergy had donned their vestments and prepared for a procession. “It’s for the sake of the world.”
Walking side by side, Ward and Gray then followed the members of their churches out into the warmth of the evening.
As one, unbroken line of believers, they processed out the side door of St. Peter’s, down 9th street, and into the sanctuary of OU Methodist, where everybody celebrated Holy Communion together.
Contact Daily Journal religion editor Galen Holley at (662) 678-1510 or firstname.lastname@example.org