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:
Cooperation, rather than competition, was the rule rather than the exception.
We remember that the Episcopalians built the original church at Gambell on St. Lawrence Island in the early 1890s. When a missionary could not be found to serve the area, the work was turned over to the Presbyterians.
There were a couple of rough moments at Nome in 1901 when the Presbyterian S. Hall Young found himself in competition with the Congregationalists but it took very little time, and a epidemic, to convince both ministers that there was plenty of work for both.
In 1916, mention was made in the minutes of the Yukon Presbytery that the missionaries were experiencing a great deal of “spiritual loneliness.”
“There is no fellowship afforded where the work is not tied in with other fields close enough for the kind of fellowship which is had at business meetings,” the minutes said, “Therefore, in the laying out of new territory to be manned either by our own church or by another, regard to this condition should be carefully considered. A closer federation with other denominations is to be desired. We should take the lead and be the first to submit to rearrangements of our fields if necessary.”
And this is what we did -- sometimes by choice, and sometimes out of necessity. Cooperative relationships took several forms.
When the U.S. federal government decided to colonize the Matanuska-Susitna Valley, for instance, they set aside land for both a Roman Catholic Church and a “Protestant” Church. Even in 1935, there were many more varieties of “Protestantism” than one, but cooperation was mandated.
The Rev. Bert Bingle arrived in Palmer, Alaska, on May 6, 1935, from Cordova. Bingle was a Presbyterian Sunday school missionary -- but the church organized by December of that year was officially called: The United Protestant Church at Palmer. It was added to the rolls of Presbytery in 1937 but retained its special interdenominational constitution until well into the 1950s.
Grace Presbyterian Church at Nenana was the site of the meeting of the "Farthest North Presbytery in the World", February 18-20, 1925. The 1943-1944 Annual Report for Grace Presbyterian, signed March 9, 1944, by Bert Bingle, confirmed that only two communicants were now being served -- by an Episcopal clergyman. Grace was no longer active by 1946. The two members, Mr. and Mrs. Tom Jones, had left. The building was used for community services for a while, but it was found to be too difficult to heat. It was sold to Vance Hitt on June 7, 1947.
Back over in Cordova, the Presbyterian Church began exploring a relationship with the American Baptist Missionary Society, especially if the denomination would agree to take over the hospital in that community. On December 20, 1949, the Cordova Hospital Association at Cordova voted 21 to 1 to accept the offer of the American Baptist Society to take over the hospital. The Presbytery decided to turn over the church work in that community to the Baptists, as well, and the church was sold to the Northern Baptist Convention in 1951.
The Rev. Ralph P. Hanson of the Swedish Evangelical Covenant Church wrote the Presbytery of Yukon in August of 1953 to explore a trade of the Covenant church work at Yakutat (Alaska Presbytery) for the Yukon Presbytery work at Wales. The Church at Wales was transferred to the Mission Covenant Church in October 1953.
In 1960, Yukon Presbytery voted to reaffirm its commitment to the Arctic coast, St. Lawrence Island, the Fairbanks area, Railbelt, Alaska Highway, Matanuska Valley and the greater Anchorage area, but stated for the record that it had “no interest in other areas for the present”.
Permission was requested in 1963 from the Synod for Presbytery to begin talks with the Episcopal Diocese of Alaska relative to coverage of the Tok/Northway part of the Highway. The following National Missions Committee recommendation was approved September 30, 1964:
... that Presbytery accept the agreement with the Episcopal Church that the Presbyterian Church continue to cover the Tok field until they can secure a pastor for the Episcopal church at Tanacross (with the Episcopal Church transferring to our account the amount of $600 to cover our transportation expenses from the Delta Junction field) and that we shall continue our negotiations for a new pastor at Tanacross to cover the Tok field.”
The Alaska Council of Churches saw that there was no mainline denominational presence in the community of Valdez and began work organizing an ecumenical effort there -- resulting in the opening of the Church of the Epiphany on August 7, 1968. The Rev. Dale G. Sailes was pastor, but an inter-denominational pulpit exchange was envisioned. The Rev. Dick Madden of the United Protestant Church in Palmer represented the Presbyterians.
At the height of its ecumenical involvement, five different denominations were involved with the Church of the Epiphany -- the Episcopalians, the Methodists, the Northern Baptists, the Presbyterians, and the Christian Church. Today, 1998, it is solely a ministry of the Episcopalian Church.
On June 12, 1968, Presbytery of Yukon voted to request the National Missions Committee to investigate ecumenical mission possibilities in Healy, in cooperation with the Episcopal Church.
On March 13, 1970, Presbytery of Yukon adopted the following policy: In areas where there is a church in a non-competing situation, that church will be recognized by the Presbytery as serving the Presbyterians in that community. And, where there is a Presbyterian church in a non-competing situation, that Presbyterian church be encouraged and permitted to represent the other denominations upon approval by Presbytery on session request.
In 1969, Presbytery of Yukon began exploring an ecumenical mission in the location of the recently dissolved Westminster Church. After three years, on May 16, 1971 the newly formed Jewel Lake Parish in Anchorage was chartered -- a joint venture (union parish) between the United Methodist Church and the United Presbyterian Church.
The Alaska Christian Conference was organized in January of 1972 to provide for fellowship and service projects among a broad spectrum of churches in Alaska. Original member churches included the American Baptist Church, Disciples of Christ, the Episcopal Church, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fairbanks, the Lutheran Church of America, the United Methodist Church, the United Presbyterian Church of the USA. The American Lutheran Church joined a little later.
A motion was defeated 15 to 18 at the March 9, 1973 meeting of the Yukon Presbytery which would have overtured the 185th General Assembly of the United Presbyterian Church in the USA to unite the Alaska and Yukon presbyteries, with boundaries for the new presbytery to correspond with those of the State of Alaska.
During this same period of time, the Alaska Methodist Mission, The Presbytery of Alaska, the Presbytery of Yukon were exploring the possibility of merging into one Tri-Anchor Ecumenical Parish. The plan would have united the United Methodist Church and the United Presbyterian Church in the USA to form a single judicatory for Alaska. This judicatory would have had full and normal relationships with the higher judicatories of both denominations, and would honor previous denominational commitments. Due to the complicated task envisioned, no other denominations were to be invited to participate until such time as the first merger was effected. This merger did not come to pass, but it is significant that it was even discussed.
By resolution passed May 20, 1974, the Alaska Christian Conference determined to initiate a cooperative ministry for men and women working on the construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. Gordon Corbett, associate synod executive for the Yukon and Alaska presbyteries, served as chairperson of the oversight committee. The Rev. Dr. (Major) Raymond A. Dexter of the Salvation Army served as the coordinating chaplain for the effort. Participating denominations included the Southern Baptists, the American Lutherans, the United Methodists, the Roman Catholics (Diocese of Fairbanks), the Episcopalians, the Salvation Army and the Presbyterians. The ministry continued throughout the entire three years of the construction project.
The Nome Presbyterian Church was organized January 14, 1975 with the local Methodist minister, the Rev. John J. Shaffer, called as pastor. Shaffer pastored both the Methodist Church and the new Presbyterian Church.
A new church development project at North Pole, Alaska, resulted in a union church established with the United Methodists, New Hope Church.
Two new United Methodist congregations were organized at Willow and at Trapper Creek as part of the new Parks Highway Parish made possible by the New Ministries Campaign in 1982. Although some members and pastors of the Tri-Anchor Ecumenical Parish had met for worship with residents of Trapper Creek, for many years there had been no United Methodist or other mainline denominational presence along the 289 miles of the Parks Highway, north of Wasilla to Fairbanks. The Methodists approached the Presbytery in a letter dated June 7, 1982, requesting to purchase the Willow chapel. After a period of negotiations, the sale was consummated.
On September 10-11, 1982, the Rev. Thomas R. Teply, Presbytery Commissioner to General Assembly, spoke on the Plan for Reunion between the United Presbyterian Church of the United States of America (northern branch) and the Presbyterian Church of the United States (southern branch). He reviewed the issue and spoke positively about the plan. The Yukon Presbytery endorsed the plan.
Some of the same denominations who worked together in the late 1880s with Sheldon Jackson in Alaska, came together again in the late 1990s to form a mission to take the gospel even further west, across the date line. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Synod of Alaska, and the Alaska Missionary Conference of the United Methodist Church share a mutual ministry with the indigenous Native American peoples of Western Alaska (Yupik and Inupiaq). These groups determined in 1991 to share with the Presbytery of Yukon a mutual mission to the Native peoples of the Russian Far East.
In 1996, the Alaska Christian Conference (ACC) developed a descriptive paper concerning its history. In that year, its ecumenical membership included the following Alaskan churches:
Affiliate members were the Anchorage Interfaith Council and the Valley Christian Conference.
The ACC was formed in 1956 as the Alaska Association of Churches. In 1959 it became the Alaska Council of Churches and the Alaska Christian Conference in 1972. Since that time it has grown from six member communions to eleven.
Over the years the Conference has been active in Native Alaskan issues, prison reform, HIV/AIDS ministry, substance abuse, ecumenical dialogue, and new pastor orientation retreats. The Conference has a very close working relationship with Rural Alaska Community Action Program (RurAL CAP), Church Women United, and Campus Ministry.
Biennial Assemblies draw clergy and laity from all parts of the state for three days of worship, workshops, special speakers and business. The last assembly had been held in Sitka in 1995. The next assembly was scheduled for Wasilla February 24-26, 1997 with the special speaker being the Rev. Dr. Daniel C. Hamby, Interim General Secretary of the Consultation on Church Union (COCU).
Current officers were:
The organization was later structured so that task forces related to particular service projects could include groups which were not members of the Conference. This was the case with the Pipeline Chaplaincy Task Force. It was noted in 1974 that the Alaska Air Command was a member of the Conference and offered support and services when possible.
During the summer of 1996, fire struck the Susitna Valley’s Miller’s Reach/Big Lake area, destroying acres upon acres of trees and hundreds of homes. Community members and volunteers from throughout the state began the process of coordinating assistance to the hundreds of persons left without shelter, food, and medical and emotional assistance.
The focal point of this effort was the Miller’s Reach-Big Lake Resource Center, the “godchild” of the Valley Christian Conference, according to an article in the local Frontiersman newspaper.
The VCC member churches funded the Resource Center:
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:
State religious leaders from the Roman Catholic, Episcopal, Orthodox, Presbyterian, United Methodist, Lutheran, along with key pastors of the evangelical-fundamentalist community, have expressed a desire for a strong common Christian witness celebrating the conclusion of this millennium and the beginning of the year 2000. Suggested theme for the common witness: Reconciliation.
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:
Murmansk: St. Nicholas Cathedral (Archimandrite Nikodim)
Monchegorsk: Ascension Cathedral (Protopresbyter Ioan [John])
Kola: Church of the Annunciation (Priest Andrew)
Pechenga: Monastery of St. Triphon of Triphon (Heboumen Filipp)
Skalisty: St. Andrew’s Church (Hieromonk Avvakum [Habakkuk])
A return delegation from Murmansk is expected to arrive in Anchorage during the spring of 1999. What will come of these new developing friendships, we do not yet know. We do know that God's people must built bridges, not walls, if we are to further the work of our Lord here on earth. Alaskan Presbyterians are in the forefront as the work enters the 21st century, just as we were in the forefront when the work began in the 19th century. May the Lord bless our continued efforts.