A first-ever meeting in January between four bishops — three Episcopal and one Lutheran —was designed to increase shared ministry in the states of Kansas and Missouri.
On Jan. 12, Episcopal bishops Dean Wolfe of Kansas, along with Michael Milliken of Western Kansas and Martin Field of West Missouri, met with Bishop Gerald uMansholt of the Central States Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Chrch in America.
Bishop Wolfe’s diocese encompasses the eastern 40 percent of the state, with Bishop Milliken’s diocese covering the rest. Bishop Field’s diocese includes the western half of Missouri. Bishop Mansholt’s synod encompasses all of Kansas and Missouri. Bishop Wayne Smith of the Diocese of Missouri also will be part of ongoing conversations.
The meeting, which included 18 people, took place in the Central States Synod offices in Kansas City.
The Episcopal Church and the ELCA are in full communion, which occurred 11 years ago when both bodies adopted the “Called to Common Mission” agreement. This means the two churches recognize each other “as part of the whole Church of Jesus Christ,” recognize each other’s baptism and recognize the sharing of the Holy Eucharist, which provides for joint worship and full sharing of members and clergy between the two denominations.
Along with Bishop Wolfe, the Diocese of Kansas sent Canon to the Ordinary the Rev. Craig Loya and Ecumenical Officer the Rev. Kelly Demo.
Bishop Wolfe, who noted that such a joint ecumenical meeting of area bishops had never before taken place, said the purpose was to look at what the groups could accomplish together.
“Bishop Milliken, Bishop Field, Bishop Mansholt and I came together, along with representatives from our respective judicatories, obedient to a unifying Spirit and all asking the same question, ‘How might we work more closely together for the glory of God and for the building up of our common mission?’”
Lutheran Bishop Mansholt agreed. “I think God is calling us to take seriously what we have agreed upon in the full communion agreement, Called to the Common Mission,” he said. “We indeed are being called by God to a deeper unity in life and mission. We are not just giving lip service to a deeper reality.
Demo said she came away from the gathering with an emotion not often felt in church meetings — excitement.
“We’ve opened up lots of possibilities,” she said, noting all the bishops wanted the gathering to result in action.
Loya shared Demo’s sense of excitement and said one immediate outcome is a commitment to get to know each other, and each other’s programs, better. “We committed to finding ways initially for clergy and lay leaders to begin interacting,” he said.
That can take a number of forms, Loya said, but one that had widespread agreement was to send representatives to each other’s annual conventions. That would involve a group of people who could learn from and share with those attending, he said.
Demo said that through discussions that day, everyone learned that ecumenical activity already is taking place, “but it’s primarily in certain local ministries of outreach, shared Vacation Bible School, etc. It’s not happening on the judicatory level yet,” she said.
Loya said he and his Lutheran counterpart agreed to work together when congregations need to hire interim clergy and to share information about congregational development, so they can find places where cooperation can occur.
He said a joint group interested in Hispanic ministry in the Kansas City area also plans to meet to explore opportunities.
Bishop Wolfe said the fact that both churches share the same geographic territory and face similar challenges makes cooperation all the more important.
“We are driven together,” he said, “for very good reasons — a common faith, a shared vision, shared geography, and a desire to be careful stewards of the finite human and financial resources entrusted to our care,” he said.
Demo agreed. “Doing things together can be more efficient and can spread the gospel farther,” she said. “But we need awareness. Ecumenical efforts can’t be an afterthought, but to do that, we have to know the players.”
Several of those charged with leading their churches forward said they were certain God’s call prompted the new commitment to sharing.
Bishop Mansholt said, “I think God is in the process of shaking us very deeply, moving things around in culture and community and church, shaping the Body of Christ until something new comes forth. Our meeting together as Lutherans and Episcopalians in January is an effort to see what God is up and how we can best be part of what God is doing.”
Bishop Wolfe agreed. “I believe this is one of those Spirit-drenched moments, when the grand possibilities, which have always been promised by the ecumenical movement, might actually come to fruition.”