Four US Protestant Churches Reach Historic Agreement on Communion

Ecumenical News International ENI News Service

20 August 1997

By Tracy Early

New York, 20 August (ENI)--The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), voted at its Churchwide Assembly in Philadelphia this week to declare full communion with three US denominations in the Reformed (Calvinist) tradition - the Presbyterian Church, Reformed Church in America and United Church of Christ.

On the same day, 18 August, the Lutherans, with some members objecting particularly to the "historic episcopate" (authority of bishops), narrowly failed to approve a similar "Concordat of Agreement" with the US Episcopal (Anglican) Church. However, the assembly approved resolutions on 19 August leaving the way open for full communion with the Episcopalians to be approved at the next assembly in 1999.

None of the Lutheran agreements with other churches involve church mergers. Instead they allow for full acceptance of clergy and sacraments of the partners, and denial of any doctrinal differences sufficient to justify church division.

Daniel F. Martensen, ELCA's ecumenical officer, told ENI that the agreement with the denominations in the Reformed tradition could "make dramatic differences". One area where laity in the local congregations would see a change was in the sharing of clergy, he said. That already occurred to some extent, but with the establishment of full communion it would become easier for small congregations of different denominations to accept the sharing of their pastors, he said. "We declared that there are no longer any fundamental doctrinal differences dividing us," Martensen said. "It is a huge step. Never before has that happened here in the United States."

The other three denominations approved the agreement earlier this year, and implementation now awaits only approval by local units - presbyteries - of the Presbyterian Church. A Presbyterian spokesman said the presbyteries were generally expected to approve. Both agreements required a two-thirds vote of the Lutheran delegates. The Reformed proposal passed by 839 to 193, or 81.3 per cent. But the vote for the Episcopal agreement was six short of two-thirds, with 684 in favor, 351 against. The ELCA, which with 5.2 million members is the biggest Lutheran church in the United States, was formed in 1987 by the merger of three bodies of different origin. The Presbyterian Church, which has mostly British origins, has 3.7 million members and the Dutch-background Reformed Church in America has 306 000 members. The United Church of Christ which has 1.5 million members, was formed in 1957 by a merger that brought together several historic streams, including Congregationalists from Britain and heirs of the Lutheran-Reformed union enacted in Prussia by King Frederick William III.Bishop H. George Anderson of the ELCA and the heads of the three Reformed churches issued a joint statement calling their agreement "a welcome sign of unity and healing in a world desperately in need of that witness". But they also acknowledged that some members of their churches "will not be able to receive this action with enthusiasm", and said those with reservations should be "heard and respected".

Some Lutherans voiced concern about the ordination of homosexuals in the United Church of Christ, and also questioned whether the denomination had a solid enough doctrinal base and ecclesiastical structure to assure that all its clergy were committed to any common faith. The United Church of Christ generally espouses liberal views emphasizing the freedom of individual congregations and individual church members. But on homosexual clergy, the Lutherans were told the agreement did not require their employment in particular.

On theology, Martensen said the Lutherans were assured the United Church of Christ did have a confessional basis and commitment to the Trinitarian faith expressed in the creeds. If some individual clergy did not consider themselves bound by that basis, he said, they could probably be matched by some Lutheran clergy who lacked any deep grounding in the Augsburg Confession, the Lutheran confession of faith. [639 words]

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