Last weekend, while we were all making up our minds for Monday’s election, two large Christian denominations in North America did something very special. They signed a unique agreement which brought them closer together.
On October 17, the United Church of Canada and the United Church of Christ signed an agreement of full communion.
What this means is that two large denominations of the Christian church agreed that they had much more in common with each other than they had differences, and decided to do something about that and say so.
The United Church of Canada, Canada’s largest protestant church, was born ninety years ago in a similar agreement bringing most of the Presbyterian church and all of the Methodist and Congregational churches in the country together. The Evangelical United Brethren joined the church in 1968.
The United Church of Christ was formed in 1957, in Cleveland, Ohio, with the merger of the Evangelical and Reformed Church and the Congregational Christian Churches. The Congregational Churches traced their roots to the English Reformation and to Puritan New England, while the Christian Church had its beginnings on the American frontier. The Evangelical Synod of North America, a 19th-century German-American church, was prominent in the Mississippi Valley, and the Reformed Church in the United States, which was of German and Swiss heritage, was initially made up of churches in Pennsylvania and surrounding colonies in the early 1700s.
Both churches have a strong commitment to social justice and commitment to inclusion of diversity in sexual and gender identities, in disabilities, and in theological openness and expression. For example, The United Church of Christ, through its predecessor bodies, ordained its first female minister in 1853, its first black minister in 1892, and its first openly gay minister in 1972. The United Church of Canada first ordained women in 1936, and in 1988 declared that sexual orientation was not a criterion for determining eligibility for ordination.
The agreement signed in Niagara Falls has five key features. Both churches agree that their common confession that “God is in Christ”. Both now recognize each other’s members and baptisms. Both agree in the common celebration of the Lord’s supper or holy communion. Both recognize the credentials of each other’s ordained ministers and both share a common commitment to the mission of each church.
At a practical level, this means that there will be much greater freedom of movement between pastors in both churches across the border, without any problems with credentials. Members of one church can be members of the others, especially in places like Florida, where some Canadians spend part of their winter. The two churches will also work together to act internationally in mission.
Such agreements are not new nor unusual. The Anglican and Lutheran churches in Canada and the US have such a full communion agreement, allowing ministers from one church to serve in the other. This has already happened in Grey Bruce.
I look forward to seeing the strengths the United Church of Christ can bring in many areas of common interest, including racial justice, aboriginal rights and climate change. Having known many United Church of Christ ministers through my own ministry, I can see their positive influence on our common work.
Rev. David Shearman is a retired United Church minister in Owen Sound and the host of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County.