Two of the ten largest denominations in the U.S. agreed to begin an Interim Eucharistic Sharing process that would strengthen theological and practical relationships within the two bodies.
By a nearly unanimous vote of 877 to 60, the 2005 Churchwide Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America adopted the recommendation to draw closer to the United Methodist Church. According to the Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches, the UMC is the second largest denomination with 8.3 million members and the ELCA is the seventh largest with 4.9 million adherents.
Under the agreement, the churches will foster mutual prayer and mutual support, study together of the Holy Scriptures as well as the histories and theological traditions of both churches, and joint programs of theological discussion, evangelical outreach, and social ministry endeavors." Both churches will also be able to share services of Holy Communion following guidelines established by both churches.
"What an historic moment this is for United Methodists and the ELCA," said Bishop William Oden, ecumenical officer for the Council of Bishops and Head of Communion for the United Methodist Church, as he greeted the assembly following the vote. "We have invited each other into each other's house."
The historic agreement comes after nearly 30 years of dialogue between the two churches that had resulted in convergence in matters relating to baptism and oversight, according to ELCA news. The agreement would potentially bring the two churches to a relationship of full communion.
The agreement also recognizes the United Methodist Church as a church in which the Gospel is preached and taught" and that "the basic teaching of each respective church is consonant with the Gospel." It would bring the ELCA closer to the UMC than to the other prominent U.S-based Lutheran body, the 2-million-member Lutheran Church Missouri Synod.
Because the two denominations are so large and come from separate Protestant families, some voting members raised concern regarding the differences in theology not only between the two churches but within each denomination as well.
"There seems a great inconsistency as to how theology gets played out in the Methodist Church," said the Rev. R. Paul Hendrickson, voting member of the ELCA Virginia Synod. "In southwest Virginia, the Methodist Church can be anything," he said.
However, the Rev. Alan C. Bjornberg, bishop of the ELCA Rocky Mountain Synod, Denver, and co-chair of the Methodist-Lutheran Dialogue, said the overall set beliefs of the Methodists outshine such local examples. He urged voting members to trust the published statements of the UMC, especially This Holy Mystery: A Methodist Understanding of Holy Communion, adopted by the General Conference of the United Methodist Church in 2004.
He said the new agreement would give time for the whole church to discover what we have discovered" regarding convergence between the two churches. He urged church members to take advantage of the time of interim Eucharistic sharing to foster even deeper relations between the two church bodies.
The churchwide assembly is the chief legislative authority of the ELCA. The assembly is meeting in Orlando, Fla. from Aug. 8-14.
For information on the Interim Eucharist Sharing agreement, visit: http://www.ELCA.org/ecumenical/ecumenicaldialogue/unitedmethodist/