The newly appointed officer for ecumenical and interfaith relations for the Episcopal (Anglican) Church in the United States has vowed to make the strengthening of Christian-Jewish-Muslim relations one of his ecumenical priorities.

Improving ties between Episcopalians and Orthodox Christians is another of his priorities.

In an interview with ENI, Bishop Christopher Epting said his current position—Episcopal Bishop of the state of Iowa—had prepared him well for his new position.

His appointment was announced in December by the church's head, Presiding Bishop Frank T. Griswold. Bishop Epting takes up the post of Deputy for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations in April.

"The ecumenical movement is alive and well locally, and the grassroots are leading the way," Bishop Epting told ENI. Local American churchgoers often "scratch their heads" at theological disagreements among churches at the national and international level, he said.

He said he was happy that at local level ecumenical dialogue and cooperation were progressing well, but ecumenical cooperation at a national level was also important. "It's not 'either-or' but 'both-and'," Bishop Epting said.

Announcing Bishop Epting's appointment, to succeed David Perry who is retiring, Bishop Griswold said the Episcopal Church intended to "establish interfaith dialogue and to expand our relations with churches of the East. I can think of no one better suited both by experience and temperament to assume this important ministry on behalf of our church."

In recent years many of the Episcopal Church's ecumenical efforts have focused on relations with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), which culminated on January 6 in the implementation of full communion between the two denominations. Now that that had been accomplished, Bishop Epting said, his church could turn its attention to other ecumenical concerns, while continuing to strengthen its relationship with the ELCA and other U.S. denominations.

Interfaith dialogue among Christians, Jews, and Muslims was at an important juncture, he said, particularly given the sensitive situation in the Middle East. He said Anglicans could play an important role in "a fair balance" of dialogue between people of the three Abrahamic faiths.

He also pointed out that Anglicanism had a unique place in church history. Though part of the Protestant tradition that grew out of the Reformation, the Anglican Church had strong roots in Roman Catholic tradition, particularly in liturgy. As a result, the Episcopal Church in the U.S. and Anglican churches abroad had been able to comfortably occupy a "bridge space" between Protestants and Catholics, Bishop Epting said.

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That role could serve the Episcopal Church well in ongoing dialogue with Eastern Churches, Bishop Epting told ENI. He said that Anglicans and Orthodox have had a positive relationship.

"And we've learned a lot from Orthodox spirituality," he added.

In recent years, he said, the Russian Orthodox Church had developed ties with the Anglican and Episcopal churches in surprising ways, including asking Anglicans for advice on the role of military chaplains following the fall of Soviet communism.

In his new job, Bishop Epting wants to continue to draw U.S. Episcopalians and members of Orthodox churches closer together. Bishop Epting, the first bishop to hold the ecumenical officer's position, said he applauded efforts by Robert Edgar, the general secretary of the National Council of Churches (NCC) to expand dialogue with the nation's Roman Catholic, Evangelical and Pentecostal churches.

"It's crazy for the NCC to call itself the National Council of Churches without Evangelical or Catholic participation," Bishop Epting said, adding that in Iowa his church had good relations with Catholic, Evangelical and Orthodox Christians.

"The ecumenical table can be enlarged," he said. But he added that there was a danger in trying to eliminate all theological or political differences among churches. "It's an important balance that has to be struck."

Christopher Epting was a parish priest in the state of Florida for 20 years before being elected Bishop of Iowa in 1988.

Related Elsewhere:

Read more about Christopher Epting from the Episcopal News Service.

Epting was part of a counter demonstration against Fred Phelps in April 2000 by religious and gay-right advocates. Read more about this in The Des Moines Register.

Epting was also part of the Lutheran Episcopal full communion drafting committee, according to Episcopal Life.

Previous Christianity Today coverage of the Episcopal Church includes:

Episcopalians and Lutherans Celebrate Full Communion | Service inaugurates the 'beginning of the journey.' (Jan. 10, 2001)
Lutheran-Anglican Agreement Ineffective Because It's Unknown, Says New Bishop | British, European priests are often unaware of 1996 pact for full communion. (June 22, 2000)
Intercontinental Ballistic Bishops? | Maverick conservatives gain a toehold among Episcopalians. (April 25, 2000)
Episcopal Church on Brink of Ecclesiastical Civil War Over Consecrations | (Feb. 2, 2000)
Dwelling in Unity? | Lutherans, Episcopalians aspire to full communion, but differences remain over role of bishops. (Oct. 4, 1999)
One Church, Two Faiths | Will the Episcopal Church survive the fight over homosexuality? (July 12, 1999)
Dying Church Bequeaths Sanctuary to Anglicans | (Sept. 7, 1998)
Lutherans, Episcopalians Revive Talks | (July 13, 1998)