For more than three decades the dream of "ecumenism" - described as the "spirit of Christ calling the churches together" - has burned brightly for America's denominational leaders.
Yet many church members have often begged their leaders just as ardently not to make basic changes to long-held beliefs and traditions without first "trying the spirits."
For American churches, those two impulses came to a dramatic head this week - as a grand plan endorsed by Lutheran officials to unite five Protestant churches ran up against a plucky group of pastors and lay Lutherans from the upper Midwest.
In an emotional meeting that may be the Protestant event of the decade, the largest Lutheran church in the US did vote to unite with three major denominations in a close relationship called "full communion." The four churches, totaling 9 million members, will now share clergy and sacred practices, along with social outreach and resources. The reconciliation reverses separate traditions that date back 450 years to the Reformation.
But in a move that stunned Lutheran leaders, the church's general assembly also narrowly rejected a formal link with the Episcopal Church. The Episcopal pact, the most controversial of the two proposals and the one watched most closely by the Protestant world, would have required Lutherans to accept a new layer of bishops and ceremony. It also would have opened an ecumenical path toward the Roman Catholic side of Christianity - something now blocked, at least for the time being.
"We've taken a historic step to heal a breach of the Reformation between Lutherans and Calvinists," says presiding Bishop George Anderson. "We still need to work on the Anglican side."
Over the past three months, the United Church of Christ, the Presbyterian church, and the Reformed Church of America voted overwhelmingly to join the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America - as did the Episcopalians. This week it all came down to the Lutheran vote - billed as a historic bridge between major parts of the Protestant world.
But church officials had not counted on the grass-roots resistance to the Episcopal plan offered by a small but determined group, many of whom were women pastors, that was largely based in Minnesota - and that enlisted the help of former Minnesota Gov. Albert Quie, a voting member of the assembly.
"Are we going to be classic Lutherans or homogenized Lutherans?" said David Preus, a former Lutheran president. "If we adopt the Concordat [the Episcopal plan] we are giving up our identity as a church that honors a 'priesthood of all believers' in favor of a church where ecclesiastical rank matters more."
In religious terms, the impulse for full communion comes from Jesus' request that the church be all one body. Yet a number of strong practical reasons and human rationales lie behind the ecumenical efforts, too. Many denominations desire more efficient operations. Under the new communion, struggling churches in small towns and rural areas, for example, can share resources or even merge. The move is also seen as creating a stronger community of believers at a time when secular culture seems more materialistic to people living a life of faith.
For years, as well, old-line Protestant leaders have wanted to offer a sizable unified alternative to conservative evangelical lobbies like the Christian Coalition.
The vote Aug. 18 to strike down the Lutheran-Episcopal Concordat may also bring changes to the way in which the larger church community goes about developing ecumenical relations, some observers feel.
The Concordat plan, for example, was designed in large part to first broadly unify the churches and then to work out crucial theological differences along the way.
But the opponents of this approach in the Lutheran Church were able to convince enough of their fellow members that the proposal smoothed over and ignored too many key differences among the churches in the effort to achieve union.
"I hope we see an ecumenical approach in the future that first honestly confronts our questions regarding the word and the gospel, and allows a direction to emerge from that engagement," says David Tiede, president of Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minn., which trains about a third of all Lutheran pastors. "I'm troubled by an approach in which you decide ahead of time where you want to go, and then make the proposal fit that plan."
By contrast, the "Formula of Agreement," as the communion between the Lutheran and Reformed churches is known as, started first with basic disagreements over issues like the eucharist, also known as the Lord's Supper. Lutherans believe that Christ is actually present in the elements of bread and wine that are shared in the communion, while Reformed churches regard Christ to be present in a more spiritual sense. But the two sides were able to agree on the presence of Christ, in some form.
A strong undercurrent inside the Lutheran church wants the denomination to begin to prepare the way for an eventual rapproachment with the Roman Catholic church. For them, accepting the Episcopal Church's view of the "historic episcopate" is a key step toward that goal.
Battle over bishops
For Episcopals, that episcopate is affirmed by the laying on of hands during the ordination of bishops and confers an apostolic succession dating to the early church. It is considered a fundamental part of Anglican ties to Catholics.
"The Lutheran vote is a great step forward for ecumenism," says UCC theologian Gabriel Fackre, who helped draft the agreement. "But it also shows that the major Reformation church body in this country is not yet ready to make a step toward a wider, institutionally based Catholicism."
In some ways, the Lutheran meeting highlighted a clash between cultures and visions inside the church - a contrast between national church officials who are ecumenically oriented and a more egalitarian brand of Lutheran typically found in the Scandinavian-derived upper Midwest.
Many officials and church members played down the divisions among Lutherans, a famously genial group. Yet strains were evident as dozens of delegates voiced concerns, mainly over the Concordat, during three days of debate. "I've been to three church wide assemblies," says Brad Jenson of the Northeastern Minnesota Synod, "but I've never seen a house so divided. Is it necessary to divide the church to advance ecumenism."
WHAT THE AGREEMENT MEANS IN THE PEWS
The pact between the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and three Reformed churches will change some centuries-old traditions:
* Clergy are interchangeable in the four churches. A church of one faith can hire a minister of another, for example, or a Lutheran and a Presbyterian church may elect to share a single pastor.
* The churches can collaborate in missionary work and service projects, such as soup kitchens or shelters.
* Each denomination - the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Reformed Church in America, the United Church of Christ, and the Evangelical Lutherans - keeps its own name and identity.
* Each denomination recognizes the validity of the others' practice of the sacrament. A Lutheran pastor can preside over the sacrament at a United Church of Christ without a minister of that faith being present.