Ecumenism in Alaska

Retreat for Alaska Church Leaders, 1989: the Second Annual Retreat for Alaska State Church Executives and Bishops was held for two days at Holy Spirit Retreat House in Anchorage. The 1989 retreat was hosted by Catholic Archbishop Francis T. Hurley and the Rev. Carol Ann Seckel, Superintendent, Alaska Missionary Conference. The purpose of the retreat was for church leaders to pray together, learn more about each religion, and plan joint ecumenical activities. Seated from left to right: Archbishop Hurley, Bishop William E. Dew Jr., United Methodist Church; and Rev. Seckel. Standing from left to right: Rev. Robert Palmer, Anna Jackman Ministries, Juneau; the Rev. Evan Jones, American Baptist Churches; Bishop Donald Parsons, Alaska Synod, Evangelical Lutheran Church of America; the Rev. Neil Munro, Synod Executive, Presbyterian Church USA; and the Rt. Rev. George C. Harris, Episcopal Diocese of Alaska.

 

 The American Christianization of Alaska began as an ecumenical effort -- and Alaska remains a territory where the mainline Christian denominations maintain a cooperative working relationship worthy of mention. This does not mean that there has always been proper respect shown to the first Christians who brought their faith and their culture to Alaska -- the Russian Orthodox; nor does it mean that there has always been a close, respectful working relationship with some of the newer, more fundamentalist denominations whose missionaries began arriving in the state after World War II, i.e. the Assemblies of God, the Salvation Army and others. But even here, Christians of various stripes and hues have learned to compete less and cooperate more.

The early missionaries and their supporters had two main goals when it came to Alaska -- the spread of the Gospel message was the first; education of Native children was the second. The task, as well as the geography, was much too large for any one denomination -- and everyone seemed to recognize this fact.

Sheldon Jackson was appointed General Agent for Education in Alaska in April of 1885. He had demonstrated a special interest in the territory since August of 1877, recruiting Presbyterian and other missionaries to set up schools and preaching points throughout southeast Alaska.

Comity Plan Initiated In Early 1880s

Following his appointment as General Agent, Jackson set about recruiting missionaries with even more fervor. Jackson’s so-called “Comity Plan” was a verbal agreement made among a number of religious denominations designed to spread the Word of God, and the ability to read that Word, throughout Alaska. “Comity” itself is not a name -- it simply means civility or courtesy. No reference has been found to a specific meeting held to hammer out details of a "comity agreement", but "The Agreement" was and is accepted tradition among Alaskan church people.

The fact is that by 1880, three years after the establishment of the first Presbyterian mission, Sheldon Jackson realized that more denominations were needed to meet the spiritual needs of the Alaskan Native people. In 1883, he wrote to the Moravian church in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, asking for help. Apparently his earlier soliciting had not brought a flood of responses from missionaries. The Moravian Church seems to be the first after the Presbyterians to establish a mission, and did so in 1885. This encouraged other denominations to follow suit.

As the missionaries arrived, a general pattern emerged which supports the idea of some kind of formal or informal agreement among the churches:

Full Communion with Three Denomninations

A special worship service was conducted during the fall 1998 meeting of the Presbytery of Yukon commemorating the national ecumenical work of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Reformed Church in America, and the United Church of Christ. Each of these four denominations on the national level has joined in a new "full communion" relationship. The Yukon worship service included a communion service officiated by both Presbyterian and Lutheran clergypersons.

"Full communion" means that each of these four churches:

Presbytery Endorses Strong Ecumenical Witness

Alaskan Presbyterians Forge Relationship

With Orthodox Churches in Russia

 In response to the invitation of Bishop Simon of Murmansk, the Presbytery of Yukon and five of its churches sent a delegation to Russia in Early September 1998.

“We will be developing congregation-to-congregation relationships with churches in Bishop Simon’s diocese. The invitation from Bishop Simon is a remarkable door opened,” Presbytery officials note. “Please pray God will remove old barriers and knit us together in love.”

Participating churches, pastors, congregants and their Russian sister-church for this mission were: