|United Methodists, Lutherans take historic step forward|
Bishop Mark Hanson of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (left)
hugs United Methodist Bishop Gregory Palmer following the approval of a
full communion agreement between the two denominations during the
Lutheran body’s Churchwide Assembly in Minneapolis. A UMNS photo ©2009 ELCA News Service.
By Linda Bloom*
August 21, 2009 | MINNEAPOLIS (UMNS)
The hugs, the standing ovations, the singing of one another’s hymns at denominational gatherings are over.
But the celebration of an historic agreement on full communion is
just beginning from local and regional United Methodist and Evangelical
Lutheran Church in America bodies to the wider world where the body of
Christ has another powerful symbol of unity.
Moments after the 2009 Churchwide Assembly of the Evangelical
Lutheran Church in America overwhelmingly voted for the agreement Aug.
20, affirming the action taken by the 2008 United Methodist General
Conference, officials from both churches were making plans to appoint
members of a commission to implement the pact.
Full communion means that each church acknowledges the other as a
partner in the Christian faith, recognizes the authenticity of each
other’s baptism and Eucharist, observes the validity of their
respective ministries and is committed to working together toward
Some church leaders were already looking forward to sharing clergy
in underserved areas, expanding joint mission work and strengthening
seminary offerings with the resources of their communion partners.
At the same time, there was a recognition all Christians have reason to be thankful.
“The church is looking for expressions of full unity and celebrates
everyone who takes a step in this direction,” said the Rev. Betty
Gamble, a staff member of the United Methodist Commission on Christian
Unity and Interreligious Concerns. “We have worked with other
ecumenical partners, in other ecumenical settings, who we know are
celebrating with us.”
Getting to know you
What gave Lutherans and United Methodists a head start is that the
traditions did not share a history of violence or wars of words that
characterized early relations between Protestants and Catholics and
many relationships among Protestant groups in the early days of the
Minnesota United Methodist Bishop Sally Dyck said she likes the idea
that founders of the traditions, John and Charles Wesley and Martin
Luther, valued music so much that they made it part of their theology.
United Methodist Bishop Gregory Palmer applauds the pact’s approval.
She also pointed out that Methodists and Lutherans “never condemned
each other” in past decades or centuries, as had other denominations.
In the discussion before the vote at the Lutheran assembly, several
speakers praised the state of relations with The United Methodist
Bishop Julian Gordy, Southeastern Synod, dated the ecumenical
experience there back some 275 years, when John Wesley visited the
state of Georgia and was impressed with the piety and music of the
The cooperation continues today.
Bishop Gregory Pile of the Allegheny (Pa.) Synod pointed out that
Simpson Temple United Parish, a Lutheran-United Methodist collaboration
in Altoona, Pa., has existed for more than 42 years.
“In the new members’ class, they talk about John and Charles Wesley and Martin Luther,” he said.
Bishop Jessica Crist of Montana said that the new full communion
agreement would be relevant to her area. “The United Methodists are the
next largest group in Montana and Wyoming after the ELCA Lutherans,”
she explained. “They are the most likely partners for mission and
The United Methodist-Lutheran agreement is significant on several
fronts. It is the first full communion agreement approved by the United
Methodist General Conference, the denomination’s top legislative body.
It is the culmination of more than 30 years of deep conversation
between the two denominations. And it could play a role in paving the
way for future United Methodist agreements with other communions.
Some elements of the agreement already are apparent in relationships
with other churches, such as the historic African-American Methodist
Bishop Gregory Palmer, president of the United Methodist Council of
Bishops and a member of the bilateral dialogue with the Episcopal
Church, said that the new relationship with Lutherans most likely “will
enrich that particular conversation.” An “interim Eucharist sharing
agreement” exists between United Methodists and Episcopalians.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America already has a full
communion agreement with the Episcopal Church, as well as with four
other denominations. But United Methodists do not inherit those
partners, Gamble said.
‘Living out’ full communion
United Methodist and Evangelical Lutheran Church in America leaders
expect by November to appoint members of a joint commission to
implement the agreement. The commission’s work includes joint planning
for mission, developing worship materials to celebrate full communion
and developing guidelines on sharing clergy.
Practical applications of the new agreement include providing
pastors together in areas that are underserved. Palmer said that he and
the Lutheran bishop in his part of Illinois “are deeply interested in
talking about what a cooperative parish ministry looks like.”
While opportunities now exist for the interchange of ordained
ministers, that is not an automatic process, Palmer pointed out. United
Methodist bishops will not be required to appoint a Lutheran pastor,
nor would Lutherans be required to put a United Methodist name on their
list of pastors.
The Rev. Sarah Heaner Lancaster, a professor of theology at the
Methodist Theological School in Ohio, said the agreement should have an
impact at the seminary level as the need arises to prepare those
seeking ordination as United Methodist pastors to be able to function
in a Lutheran setting as well. Such considerations are made at Lutheran
seminaries in relation to their full communion partners, Lancaster said.
Palmer believes the pact also offers “tremendous opportunities” for
mission, including the linking of Lutheran Social Services with United
Methodist community centers around the United States. “I think we’ll
discover that some of these agencies have already been working
together,” he said.
The depth of connections forged between United Methodists and
Lutherans has yet to be uncovered, said Lutheran Bishop Allan Bjornberg
“The stories heard at the microphone today are the tip of an iceberg that is enormous,” he said after the vote.
*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York.
News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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