The Moravian Episcopate and the Episcopal Church*

By Ferguson, Thomas C. | Anglican and Episcopal History, December 2002 | Go to article overview

The Moravian Episcopate and the Episcopal Church*


Ferguson, Thomas C., Anglican and Episcopal History


INTRODUCTION

The Moravian Church, or the Unitas Fratrum or Unity of the Brethren, is one of the Anglican Communion's oldest partners in ecumenical dialogue.1 The Unity of the Brethren emerged from the Czech reform movement of the fifteenth century, whose most eloquent and influential exponent was Jan Hus.2 The Unity of the Brethren was one of many groups advocating for the Reformation of the church which flourished in fifteenth-century Bohemia. Their central demands included preaching in the vernacular, communion in both kinds, and moral reform of the parish clergy and hierarchy. The more militant of these groups took on an apocalyptic tone and advocated armed resistance to the state and the Roman Catholic Church. Some moderates eventually reconciled with the Roman Catholic Church.3 In 1457 a group of reformers was convinced of the necessity to continue the work of reformation and formed a new church body. In 1467 they chose three men to lead them who were consecrated by a local Waldensian elder.4 This marks the official beginning of the Unity of the Brethren as a separate church, the oldest continuous Protestant episcopal church.0 While the church flourished in the sixteenth century, it also experienced repeated periods of persecution. The church expanded throughout Moravia, southern Germany, and Poland. It was nearly wiped out by the devastation of the Thirty Years' War.6 The Brethren barely survived the devastating effect of the war in small pockets scattered throughout some parts of Poland, Prussia, and Moravia. Jan Amos Comenius functioned as a bishop in exile, traveling throughout Europe and raising awareness on behalf of his church's plight. In 1722 a group of exiles who were influenced by the Unity of the Brethren settled on the estate of the German nobleman Nicholas von Zinzendorf, and was shortly joined by refugees who were descendants of the ancient Unitas. From this community the Moravian Church was reborn and now currently numbers over 750,000 members worldwide, spread across twenty provinces.7

Contacts between Anglicans and Moravians date back to the seventeenth century. Bishop Comenius visited England and raised financial and moral support for his persecuted church.8 With the resuscitation of the Unity came a strong impetus towards foreign missions, particularly in English colonies. As a result of missionary work by the Moravians, Count Zinzendorf initiated contacts with the Church of England. The high point of these discussions was the act of Parliament which recognized the Unitas Fratrum as "an antient protestant episcopal church"9 and the personal recognition of Moravian orders by some members of the Anglican establishment.10 Several Moravian congregations were established in the United Kingdom. Moravians settled in Pennsylvania and later in North Carolina, and were active in mission work in Greenland, the West Indies, Central America, Africa, Alaska, and among Native Americans. A century later, responding to the needs and concerns raised in the mission fields, dialogue between the two churches was renewed at the 1878 Lambeth Conference. Sustained discussions towards reunion and recognition of ministries continued for nearly fifty years.11 Even after the conclusion of bilateral discussions, the two churches remained in dialogue as partners in the Covenant of Union between the Church of England and the Moravian Church, the Methodist Church, and the United Reformed Church in the United Kingdom.12 After the failure of the Covenant of Union in 1982, the Moravian Church in the United Kingdom in 1985 approached the Church of England to suggest a new round of bilateral dialogue. The dialogue commenced following the 1988 Lambeth Conference and met from 1989-1995.13 The dialogue issued the "Fetter Lane Common Statement," which expressed agreement in matters of faith14 and also acknowledged areas where "further convergence would be required." Chief among these included "a re-appraisal of the three orders of ministry" and "the role of the episcopate within a 'united' church. …

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