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United Methodists, Lutherans take historic step forward

Presiding 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 greater unity.

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 Reformation.

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 Church.

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 Lutherans.

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 ministry.”

Looking forward

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 denominations.

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.

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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 of Denver.

“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 newsdesk@umcom.org.

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