Bilateral and multilateral dialogues between denominations have to take place at a higher level than the state. In other words, the Episcopalians and the Presbyterians in North Carolina can’t just get together and agree to recognize each other’s ordinations or accept each other’s way of celebrating Communion.
But these conversations have to start somewhere and, once again, a national conversation has started here in North Carolina. (For an earlier Christian unity dialogue begun in NC, click here.)
The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America have been in conversation for five years now. The bishops of both churches have prepared a “statement of mission,” noting that they “are called to one another as brothers and sisters in Christ” and committing themselves to “identify the tapestry of God’s vision for us in our communities of faith.”
They gathered in Salisbury last weekend to celebrate and continue that conversation. St. John’s Lutheran Church – a congregation founded in 1747 – was the site for Friday night’s Covenant Service. The sermon was brought by Bishop George Walker, who is not only the AME Zion Presiding Bishop for the western half of NC but also the Senior Bishop for the entire church. Celebrating Communion was Bishop Mark Hanson, Presiding Bishop for the entire ELCA.
Music was an important part of worship, starting with congregational singing of seven gathering songs, some primarily from the Lutheran tradition, others from the AME Zion. A combined choir from St. John’s, Soldiers Memorial AME Zion, and Livingstone College provided beautiful special music. A soloist set the tone for the evening with an incredible singing of “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” Organists, pianists, and trumpeter were superb.
Bishop Hanson, in introducing Bishop Walker, noted the bishop’s “steely eyes . . . to spot injustice.” Bishop Walker reminded us about Rip Van Winkle, who slept through the American Revolution, and called on the church to arise, noting that it is “slumbering away on some grassy knoll of irrelevance.” (As an aside, Bishop Walker’s mother-in-law had passed the day before, at the age of 97. At his wife’s insistence, he had continued with his plans to preach on Friday night and was then flying to Chicago for services.)
Saturday was given over to a summit, bringing together leaders of both churches to explore future directions for their conversation to take.
And the North Carolina roots of this conversation? Several years ago, Hood Theological Seminary (an AME Zion school located in Salisbury) moved to a campus beside I-85, and a couple of doors down from the offices of the NC Synod of the ELCA. As new neighbors, Lutheran bishop Leonard Bolick and Hood president Albert Aymer started getting together occasionally. (I jokingly suggested that they had probably run into each other at the Starbucks I had just driven by, but I learned their preferred meeting place had been a Waffle House!) Their personal relationship expanded into “What might we do together?” It wasn’t long before they had carried that question to the leaders of their churches, and the national conversation began.
It is especially significant for a bilateral conversation like this to take place between a historically white church and an African-American church. May God continue to be with the AME Zions and the Lutherans as they live into Jesus’ prayer that all his followers might be one.
–George Reed, Executive Director