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. [Episcopalians] can assist [Lutherans] on the two coasts, where we are stronger." A future strategy, he suggests, might involve starting new churches together.
After reaching agreements with the Reformed churches, the Lutheran experience points to a development of joint ministries that have more impact on their communities, Shafer says. The agreements led to "more combined worship services, more educational programs, more social ministry. It just multiplied."
In other bilateral action, Anglican and Catholic bishops from many countries met in May in Toronto in an "unprecedented" gathering, says the Rev. John Hotchkin, executive director for ecumenical and interreligious affairs at the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. The two faiths have held talks since 1970, but this meeting is expected to give new impetus to the move toward unity.
And on July 9, a meeting related to what is perhaps the Vatican's highest ecumenical priority will take place in Maryland, bringing together Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox bishops from around the world, Fr. Hotchkin says.
Along with the deepening of the movement through bilateral pacts have come pressures to broaden involvement at the "ecumenical table." National and global councils traditionally have included mainline Protestants and Orthodox churches, with Catholics and Evangelicals remaining outside the fold. But this is changing on several continents.
The British Council of Churches reinvented itself a few years ago to include Catholics, Evangelicals, and Pentecostals, and is now called Churches Together in Britain and Ireland.
Last month, church leaders in Asia announced plans for a third meeting of the Asian Movement for Christian Unity, which will bring together Asian Catholic bishops and the Christian Conference of 98 Protestant, Anglican, and Orthodox churches to try to form a single ecumenical entity.
The Vatican has begun conversations with the World Fellowship of Evangelicals and with the Pentecostals.
In the US, churches of all stripes are working together at the local level on social concerns. Some Evangelicals have supported this kind of "functional ecumenism," but shied away from alliances they felt might dilute doctrinal unity.
The National Association of Evangelicals, however, recently dropped a rule that prevented any NAE member from also joining the National Council of Churches. Then, the NCC announced that it will pursue conversations with Catholic, Pentecostal, and Evangelical communities on creating a more inclusive Christian body.
Such a group will not be easy to form. Conservative Protestant churches have routinely objected to NCC approaches.
Desires to embrace a wider Christian family face many other obstacles: differences over the ordination of women, the role of the pope, and issues of sexuality.
Still, "it's a very exciting opportunity," Shafer says. "There is a surprising convergency of desire at least to talk to each other."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society