The 76th General Convention took steps, big and small, to reunite Christians in opening, reaffirming and expanding ecumenical dialogues through legislation passed July 8-17 in Anaheim, California.
"The biggest step forward is the full communion step with the Moravian church," said Bishop C. Christopher Epting, deputy to the presiding bishop for ecumenical and interreligious relations, adding that it’s not official until the Northern and Southern provinces of the Moravian Church vote to accept the proposed agreement when they meet in 2010.
Resolution A073, approved overwhelmingly by General Convention, sets the basis for full communion to be established between The Episcopal Church and the Northern and Southern Provinces of the Moravian Church.
"Christ’s prayer that we all be one church" forms the basis of all ecumenical relations, Bishop Epting said. "We are meant to witness as one."
Moravian Church membership is concentrated in North Carolina and the central and eastern parts of Pennsylvania, with a small presence in western Ohio, but there are no Moravian Churches in the Western Pennsylvania area.
A recent conversation with Albert Reynolds, an Elder in the Moravian Church, about a similar agreement between the Moravians and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) led to a request to Al for an article introducing the Moravians to Pittsburghers. He graciously consented to help.
Moravians? Who Are They?
By Al Reynolds, Elder, Graceham Moravian Church, Thurmont MD
We’ve seen Moravian Stars, and we’ve eaten Moravian sugar cookies. But we don’t see any Moravian churches in our area. What are we getting ourselves into?
Where the Spirit Leads
The General Convention is considering a full communion agreement with the Moravian Church. Full communion is a brotherly and sisterly affirmation of common concerns existing between two distinct churches, including mutual recognition of baptism and sharing the Lord’s Supper; allowing for joint worship, mutual recognition of ordained clergy, and common commitment to evangelism, witness, and service. It constitutes a lowering of barriers between two families within the Family of Christ.
So who are the Moravians?
Moravians in the United States and the World
Moravians are an ecumenical body, fully cooperative with other Christian communities. The Moravian Church was one of the first members of the National and World Councils of Churches, and the Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Council of Churches, Rev. Gary Harke, is an ordained pastor of the Moravian Church.
In the United States the churches are organized into a Northern Province (including Pennsylvania) and a Southern Province, with seventeen other provinces around the world. There are 50,000 members in the United States and about 800,000 worldwide.
The Moravian Church already has agreements of various sorts in place with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and with the Church of England.
Early Church History
Moravians are one of the first fruits of the Reformation. Several generations before Calvin and Luther the followers of John Hus had already formed communities that were pledged to adherence to Scripture rather than to Roman Catholic authority; including worship in the local languages rather than Latin, and serving both the bread and wine of Holy Communion to all members rather than reserving special privileges for clergy. We take these practices for granted today, but they were powerful and explosive changes when the Hussites (forebears of today’s Moravian Church), formally organized in 1457. They were persecuted as heretics and took up arms to defend themselves. Five crusades were launched against the Hussites in the fifteenth century. None of them succeeded. Hussites quickly adapted high technology for their day (light wagon-borne cannon) and defeated their opponents.
Moravians came to Pennsylvania between 1738 and 1740, settling in Bethlehem and Nazareth. Here, they were viewed favorably by Proprietor Thomas Penn. In 1749 the British Parliament, with the full support of the bishops of the Church of England, recognized the Moravians as an “ancient episcopal Protestant church.”
Prior to the eighteenth century, the office of Chief Elder existed in the Moravian Church. This individual acted, in effect, as the chief executive of the Moravian Church. But as the church grew and spread the task became far too difficult for the incumbent, who in 1741, reluctantly resigned. There was an election deadlock at the meeting in London convened to replace him. After numerous ballots, a new nomination was received: “Let us elect Jesus Christ as the Chief Elder.” And it was done. As someone with a sense of history said, “The Moravians somehow took what could have been a messy church fight and made it into a shining statement of faith.”
North American Beginnings
Settlement in North America began primarily in Pennsylvania, where there are now twenty-two Moravian congregations, with a concentration around Bethlehem. The Bethlehem area also includes Moravian College, Moravian Theological Seminary, the Moravian Archives, the Moravian Historical Society, and the headquarters of the Northern Province of the Moravian Church. The Moravian Book Shop in Bethlehem, founded in 1745, is the oldest continually operating bookstore in the world. While the title “Moravian” derives its name from the geographic area of Moravia (now in the Czech Republic), very few ties remain to that region. In fact, most early Moravian Church settlers in North America came here from Germany.
Moravians are the ones who proclaim the Resurrection by standing in graveyards at dawn on Easter Sunday and singing hymns of victory. We all believe in the Resurrection, but the Moravians put their feet (and their voices and their musical instruments) where their faith is.
Part of what distinguishes Moravians is that we do not engage in fruitless doctrinal debates. Doctrine is not the most important aspect of our church; it is more important to be a living witness of Christ. The Moravian Church was not formed over a dispute about doctrine but in order to better live according to the teachings of Jesus.
The Moravian Church embodies many features of other churches in creative ways. If you can picture a church that is largely Lutheran in worship, Presbyterian in government, Quaker in ethics, has bishops much like the Episcopal Church, and that sings glorious music from its own historic heritage, you come close to the Moravian Church.
Ordination and consecration of ministers is the only rite of the church reserved to the bishops, and it is a solemn ritual that emphasizes the servant nature of ministry. The Moravian Church does ordain women and there are currently two female bishops serving in North America.
The Moravian motto states the Moravian central touchstone of life:
“In essentials, unity. In non-essentials, liberty. In all things, love.”
Visit the Moravian Church in North America’s web site at http://www.moravian.org/
Special thanks to Lynette Wilson of Episcopal Life Online for contributing to this article.