Baptists and Episcopalians together?

In my book Ecumenism Means You, Too: Ordinary Christians and the Quest for Christian Unity, I suggested this as something that “ordinary Christians” can do locally to further the visible unity of the church: “If your own denomination has been in…official dialogue with other churches, studying and discussing these reports would be an ideal way to learn about other denominations and their relationship to your own tradition” (pp. 63-64).

Two churches in Shelby, NC, tried that suggestion out together this summer. For the second year in a row, Ross Grove Baptist Church and the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer combined their resources to hold a joint Vacation Bible School, which this summer also featured an “adult track.” The world communions of the two churches, the Baptist World Alliance and the Anglican Communion, held a series of conversations 2000-2005 that produced a substantial study text. In connection with that document, I led a group of members from both congregations in a study of the theme “Baptists and Episcopalians, One in Christ.” Here are the topics we discussed:

  • “A Shared Story: From Separation and Persecution to Toleration to Ecumenical Engagement”
  • “Common Prayer? Occasion for Division, Opportunityfor Convergence”
  • “One Baptism? Comparable Journeys of Christian Initiation”
  • “One Bread, One Body? Together at the Table”
  • “So What? Living Into Our Unity”

This study was one of the most enjoyable local church Christian education events I’ve ever experienced. In many ways it was akin to one of the most enjoyable experiences in graduate-professional theological education I’ve had, an ecumenical theology course I taught at the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, SC, that included 18Lutherans, three Baptists, two Episcopalians and two Methodists.

Participants in our adult VBS study were able to name and move beyond the stereotypical impressions they had of one another’s traditions. For Baptists and Episcopalians alike, it was also an opportunity to learn more about the rationales for the distinctive doctrines and worship practices of our own traditions, sometimes occasioning some intra-denominational questions that might not have occurred apart from this inter-denominational conversation. Some participants expressed the desire to visit worship services in one another’s churches sometime and gather for continued conversation afterwards.

Baptist participation in international ecumenical dialogue has yielded resources that could be used for similar studies with neighboring churches of other denominational traditions. Beginning in the 1970s, the BWA has engaged in bilateral dialogues with the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, the Roman Catholic Church, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Mennonite Conference, and the Anglican Communion. (The BWA has also held exploratory “pre-conversations” with the Eastern Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarchate and later this year will begin a series of conversations with the Pentecostal World Fellowship.) These dialogues have issued reports that can serve as study resources for the sort of grassroots dialogue we enjoyed in Shelby.

The Mennonites are Baptists’ closest denominational kissing cousins. If there is a Mennonite fellowship in your area, members of your Baptist congregation can get to know them by exploring together “Baptist-Mennonite Theological Conversations” (1989-92).

While Baptists represent a distinctively different stream of the Protestant tradition, its Reformation tributaries flow from the Lutheran beginnings of Protestantism. Join Lutheran neighbors in digging down to common roots by reading “Baptists and Lutherans in Conversation: A Message to our Churches” (1990).

Not all Baptists are Reformed with a capital “R” (i.e., Calvinist), but since the 17th century significant segments of Baptist life have identified with that expression of the Reformation. Whether you claim the heritage of Particular (Calvinistic) or General (Arminian) Baptists, the “Report of Theological Conversations Sponsored by the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the Baptist World Alliance, 1973-77” is an excellent entrée to stimulating theological conversation with local Presbyterians.

Dissent from the Church of England birthed the Baptists, but as we discovered in Shelby, contemporary Anglicans/Episcopalians and Baptists now have much more in common and many gifts to share with one another. Conversations Around the World 2000-2005: The Report of the International Conversations between the Anglican Communion and the Baptist World Alliance (2005), edited by renowned Baptist theologian Paul Fiddes, is a rich and engaging exercise in ecumenical theological reflection that will enlighten members of Baptist congregations and Episcopal/Anglican parishes as they read, mark, and inwardly digest it together.

It would be difficult to imagine a more polarized pair of ecumenical dialogue partners than Baptists and Roman Catholics. Yet the two communions have been able to issue “Summons to Witness to Christ in Today’s World: A Report on the Baptist-Roman Catholic International Conversations” (1984-88). Watch for a report from the 2006-2010 series of BWA-RCC conversations in 2013. Both documents will help Baptists and Roman Catholics learn to recognize one another, and learn from one another, as brothers and sisters in Christ.

At the grassroots, Christian laypersons of all denominations can be some of the most passionately ecumenical people one can meet, gladly embracing those whom they perceive to be following the same Lord. When they build on that instinct by reading and discussing these dialogue reports together, the dialogues will make their hope-for contribution to Christian unity.

[Note: The dialogue texts referenced in this post that are available online are hyperlinked. Most were also issued in pamphlet or booklet form, and all are included in the three-volume Growth in Agreement series published by the World Council of Churches: vol. 1, Growth in Agreement: Reports and Agreed Statements of Ecumenical Conversations on a World Level, ed. Harding Meyer and Lukas Vischer (New York: Paulist Press; Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1984); vol. 2, Growth in Agreement II: Reports and Agreed Statements of Ecumenical Conversations on a World Level, 1982-1998, ed. Jeffrey Gros, Harding Meyer, and William G. Rusch (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans; Geneva: WCC Publications, 2000); vol. 3, Growth in Agreement III: International Dialogue Texts and Agreed Statements, 1998-2005, ed. Jeffrey Gros, Thomas F. Best, and Lorelei F. Fuchs (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans; Geneva: WCC Publications, 2007). One of my current writing projects is the publication of a complete collection of texts from international, national, and regional ecumenical dialogues in which Baptists have participated. In the meantime, churches interested in taking up the practice of grassroots ecumenical dialogue I’ve commended in this post can find relevant resources in the places I’ve noted here.]

Steve Harmon

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About the Author
Steven R. Harmon teaches Christian Theology at Gardner-Webb University School of Divinity in Boiling Springs, North Carolina. His most recent book is "Ecumenism Means You, Too: Ordinary Christians and the Quest for Christian Unity" (Eugene, Ore.: Cascade Books, 2010). Dr. Harmon blogs at Ecclesial Theology. He and his family are members of St. John's Baptist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina.

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