After decades of dialogue, two Christian churches in the US are
about to set a milestone in ecumenical history.
Episcopalians are expected to approve this week, during their
convention in Denver, a proposal for "full communion" with the
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, opening the way for sharing
sacraments and clergy. Lutherans have already endorsed the proposal.
Even as some Christian churches face divisions within, many
nonetheless continue a broader search for unity across
denominations. The Episcopal-Lutheran agreement is the latest piece
in a mosaic of ecumenical projects being pursued around the world.
Facing an aggressively materialistic culture and the spread of
other world faiths, more churches are responding to the New
Testament call for oneness. Their efforts are taking shape in two
ways: church-to-church agreements, like the Episcopal-Lutheran pact,
and a restructuring of ecumenical councils, such as the National
Council of Churches, to include a broader range of denominations.
"We are in a new era of ecumenism," says Eric Shafer,
communications director for the Evangelical Lutherans. "The emphasis
is on church-to-church agreements, and the larger bodies have to
focus on service and the unique conversations they can hold." The
Lutherans already approved accords with four other Protestant
churches: the Presbyterian Church in the USA, the Reformed Church in
America, the United Church of Christ, and the Moravian Church.
Such movement toward bilateral pacts "suggests that we are
entering a new era of a profoundly deepened ecumenism," says Karl
Donfried, professor of religion at Smith College in Northampton,
Mass. He attended the momentous signing last fall of the Roman
Catholic-Lutheran Joint Declaration on Justification, which removed
the official condemnations of centuries that began with Martin
Luther's excommunication. "Already we've seen the fruits of that
agreement in New England," Dr. Donfried says, in terms of joint-
worship services and other activities.
The meaning of 'full communion'
The landmark Lutheran-Episcopalian accord is "part of a worldwide
movement of Anglicans and Lutherans to move closer together," says
the Rev. Chris Epting, the Bishop of Iowa, who headed the Episcopal
half of the team that drafted "Called to Common Mission."
Full communion does not mean merger, but allows for exchange of
clergy and fuller sharing in worship and mission activities. It also
brings Lutheranism into the Anglican tradition of "the historic
episcopate," under which only bishops who are said to trace their
succession back to Jesus' apostles can ordain new bishops. This
raises a concern for some Lutherans, who say it violates the less-
hierarchical Lutheran traditions on ordination. A group of about 200
Lutheran congregations continues to press its opposition and seek
some exemptions from the accord.
But many believe the agreement's benefits will soon be recognized
by all concerned. "I'm an Episcopalian in the Midwest, where we have
many small and scattered churches," Bishop Epting says. "Lutherans
are strong here, and we can benefit from shared clergy arrangements. …