Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

Are We There Yet? the Task and Function of Full-Communion Coordinating Committees

Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

Are We There Yet? the Task and Function of Full-Communion Coordinating Committees

Article excerpt


Over the past twenty years, bilateral full-communion agreements have proliferated on the ecumenical scene in the United States. Some of the specific agreements that are currently in play include (in chronological order):

The Episcopal Church-the Old Catholic Churches of the Union of Utrecht (1934)

The Episcopal Church-The Philippine Independent Church (1961)

The Episcopal Church-the Mar Thoma Syrian Church of Malabar, India (1979) (1)

The United Church of Christ-Christian Church/Disciples of Christ Ecumenical Partnership (1989) (2)

Evangelical Lutheran Church in America-Presbyterian Church (USA), the Reformed Church in America, and the United Church of Christ (1997) (3)

Evangelical Lutheran Church in America-the Moravian Church of America, Northern & Southern Provinces (1999) (4)

Evangelical Lutheran Church in America-the Episcopal Church (2001) (5)

Evangelical Lutheran Church in America-United Methodist Church (2009) (6)

The Episcopal Church-the Moravian Church of America, Northern & Southern Provinces (2010) (7)

The ecumenical dialogues culminating in these full-communion agreements are tremendous achievements for the churches. However, they remain merely printed documents until the churches implement these accords. Finding ways in which these agreements can live is the responsibility of full-communion coordinating committees. It is both a duty and a joy to make unity visible by the grace of God in order to make a stronger, more united witness to the world, in obedience to Jesus' call.

This essay will explore the role that the national full-communion coordinating committees play in implementing bilateral full-communion agreements, describe the functions and characteristics of these coordinating committees in action, and assess the challenges and opportunities inherent in implementing these ecumenical agreements in the life of the churches. Because the present author has served as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America co-chair of the Lutheran-Episcopal Coordinating Committee since 2008, many examples used here will derive from the full-communion agreements of those two churches.

Definition and Characteristics of Full Communion

Soon after the formation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (hereafter, ELCA), the church crafted a policy statement to define and guide its ecumenical work: Ecumenism: The Vision of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which was adopted in 1991. The vision statement states the church's ecumenical commitment: to be "bold to reach out in several directions simultaneously to all those with whom it may find agreement in the Gospel" and to "[give] priority to no Christian denomination or group." (8) The vision statement defines the stages of the ELCA's dialogue process with ecumenical partners. The first stage is ecumenical cooperation with other denominational expressions and ecumenical organizations, such as councils of churches. Ecumenical dialogue in both bilateral and multilateral forms is the second stage. The third stage, preliminary recognition, involves church agreements on eucharistic sharing and at least partial doctrinal agreement and some recognition of ministry, though without the expectation of exchangeability of clergy.

The fourth stage, full communion, is described in the vision statement as the ELCA's realization of the goal of the ecumenical movement. (9) Building upon the work of the 1983 international Anglican-Lutheran dialogue, published as "The Cold Ash Report," the ELCA vision statement defines full communion in this way:

   Full communion, a gift from God, is founded on faith in Jesus
   Christ. It is a commitment to truth in love and a witness to God's
   liberation and reconciliation. Full communion is visible and
   sacramental.... Full communion ... points to the complete communion
   and unity of all Christians that will come with the arrival of the
   kingdom of God at the parousia of Christ, the Lord. … 
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