United Methodists declared Monday a "banner day" as they approved a full communion agreement with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
The new relationship between the two major Protestant denominations is not a merger but a recognition of each other's ministry and mission. Full communion recognizes that each church has "the one, holy, catholic and apostolic faith" expressed in the Scriptures and confessed in historic creeds and the core teachings of each denomination.
The two churches also recognize the authenticity of each other's baptism and eucharist and the full interchangeability of all ordained ministers.
"It's not merger," said Bishop Melvin Talbert, co-chairman of the United Methodist-ELCA dialogue team. "It means we are open to receiving and accepting and acknowledging each other's ministries."
Although not a merger, ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson hopes the full communion will foster a deeper relationship and ecumenical cooperation as the two churches focus more on how to do things together rather than separately.
The United Methodists' approval for communion comes after 30 years of theological dialogue. Since 2005, the two churches have encouraged members to pray for and support each other, to study Scripture together and to learn about each other's traditions.
Noting that fruit has finally come, Hanson told Methodists on Tuesday, "This is why we, as the ELCA, and you, as The United Methodist Church, vote on full communion - because we believe together we might more imaginatively, evangelically, prophetically and abundantly bear fruit for the sake of the Gospel and the life of the world," according to the United Methodist News Service.
Hanson, who also serves as president of the Lutheran World Federation, spoke during the Tuesday morning worship at the United Methodist General Conference, which takes place every four years, in Fort Worth.
In a rootless, restless world, Christians "have a powerful testimony to give," and good news to share, Hanson told UMC delegates.
"I am the vine, you are the branches. I have loved you the way my Father has loved me. You didn't choose me, remember: I chose you," the ELCA head said as he cited the good news of Jesus.
And although a more self-help, feel-good gospel may be more palatable in today's religious marketplace, Hanson stressed that the radical Gospel of Christ is all that is needed.
"Lives rooted in Christ the vine will bear fruit," he said.
The ELCA already has five full communion relationships with The Episcopal Church, the Moravian Church in America, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Reformed Church in America and United Church of Christ.
The United Methodist Church just entered dialogue with The Episcopal Church but the agreement with the ELCA is its first full communion relationship outside the Methodist tradition.
Bishop Frank Brookhart, co-chairman of the United Methodist-Episcopal dialogue, thus described the Methodists' approval on Monday as "a miracle."
"It's real easy for churches to separate. It's real hard to get back together," he explained. "This doesn't happen without the risen Christ among us."
The ELCA is expected to vote on full communion with the UMC at its assembly in August 2009.
The ELCA is the largest Lutheran denomination in the country with 4.8 million members. The United Methodist is the largest Protestant mainline denomination with nearly 8 million members in the United States.