The United Church of Christ and the Iglesia Evangelica Unida de Puerto Rico (IEUPR) are forging a closer relationship, embarking on process that both Churches hope result in a Full Communion agreement.
The development came in early September when several representatives of the UCC spent time in Puerto Rico visiting churches and meeting clergy of the Iglesia Evangelica Unida de Puerto Rico.
The Rev. James Moos, UCC executive minister of Global Engagement and co-executive of Global Ministries, the common overseas ministry of the UCC and Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and the Rev. Karen Georgia Thompson, UCC minister for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations, traveled to the island to meet with the Rev. Edward Rivera, IEUPR general pastor. They were joined by the Rev. John Vertigan, conference minister of the Florida Conference UCC, and the Rev. Angel Rivera-Agosto, Global Ministries executive of Latin America and the Caribbean.
This gathering was one of the first meetings of high-level executives of the two Churches since the IEUPR, formerly the Puerto Rico Conference UCC, became an independent church. The conversation was intentionally focused on the future of the relationship – on moving beyond the 2005 split. In that discussion Thompson said, "IEUPR indicated it would like to pursue the closest possible relationship with the UCC while remaining an independent church. As representatives on behalf of the UCC, we too decided that such a relationship was long overdue."
"The IEUPR separated from the UCC following the 2005 General Synod where the marriage equality resolution was passed. It was widely assumed by members of the UCC that the resolution was the primary, if not the sole reason, for the departure," said Moos. "While there were disagreements as well as misunderstandings around the resolution, the IEUPR communicated to the UCC that the longing for autonomy was central to its decision to leave the UCC. The relationship between the UCC and IEUPR was formed in a colonial model that perpetuated patriarchy."
IEUPR and UCC representatives both expressed sorrow and apologies for the breach in relationship and the many years it has taken to get to a place where the two Churches can move forward in a wider shared ministry together.
"The UCC supports the IEUPR as an independent church," Moos continued. "IEUPR and the UCC look forward to a renewed ecumenical relationship possibly leading to full communion."
A full communion agreement allows two or more Churches to recognize each others' sacraments and the ordination of ministers, granting ministers the privilege to be called by congregations of either denomination. This will be the UCC's fifth full communion agreement.
Currently the two Churches are collaborating closely in the recovery effort in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. The group visited Ryder Hospital which sustained significant damage from that storm, and is being supported in the rebuilding process by UCC Disaster Ministries.
The IEUPR has already passed two resolutions that encouraged the Church in Puerto Rico to pursue ecumenical relationship globally. The relationship with the UCC was a part of that 2015 resolution—the hope for a relationship framed in mutuality and respect, working together for the Church unity.
"Undoubtedly, there is an important complexity in the interaction of two autonomous churches wanting to build community around the table," said the Rev. Edward Rivera Santiago, pastor general of the IEUPR. "They must be two intertwined equal actors. This requires a profound exploration of the willingness to affirm this partnership journey. Both churches must have a clear understanding of their identities in order to be able to share them. To attain this, we require a revision and analysis of each other history, without ignoring the complexity of this process. Acknowledging it, helps to build trust. We must be willing to be self-critical and be able to criticize each other. The new relationship must affirm a co-responsible model of interaction. In addition, a clear and profound process of communication is needed. Mutual respect is key to acknowledge our mutual gifts and sensibilities. Our greatest challenge is to be able to offer our churches a radical testimony of mutuality and ecumenism. Together we will establish how our relationship will become in the near future."
"As we look toward a future that involves a closer relationship between the IEUPR and the UCC, we are committed to finding ways in which we can be in community, and where we can learn and grow together," said Thompson. "The UCC will be inviting representation from IEUPR to General Synod in Milwaukee in June. This will provide an opportunity to create space for members of the UCC who will be at General Synod to learn more about the ministry of IEUPR. Similarly, we look forward to being able to attend the IEUPR assembly in 2019. Both of these events will be important places as we begin this new relationship and collaborate in our efforts to build the body of Christ."
The two Churches hope to continue that collaboration as a General Synod resolution moves them toward Full Communion.
"The full communion process will be developed by both churches," Thompson said. "My office is bringing 'A Resolution on Ecumenical Relationship with IEUPR,' (to General Synod in June) similar to the one we did with the United Church of Canada in 2013. This will provide the entry point for the way forward on the UCC side. This would also mirror the action taken by the IEUPR assembly three years ago."
"The United Church of Christ and the United Evangelical Church of Puerto Rico long for deeper ecumenical connections and shared commitments so that we can move forward together in the service of God's mission," Moos said. "We celebrate that the first steps have been taken to move our churches toward visible unity and closer collaboration in mission and ministry."