Across Christendom, churches strengthen ties
After decades of dialogue, two Christian churches in the US are about to set a milestone in ecumenical history.Skip to next paragraph
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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. [Episcopalians] can assist [Lutherans] on the two coasts, where we are stronger." A future strategy, he suggests, might involve starting new churches together.