United Methodist, Lutheran Churches Pursue 'Full Communion'

The United Methodist Church and Evangelical Lutheran Church in America will ask its members to approve "full communion" between the two bodies starting this spring.

Church leaders agreed to take another step toward unity between the two major church denominations during their last round of dialogue in December.

Full communion essentially means "acknowledging one another's ministries as valid," and wanting to be involved in mutual decision-making, explained the Rev. W. Douglas Mills, an executive with the United Methodist Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns, according to the United Methodist News Service.

Although full communion is a clear step towards full unity, Mills added, "We don't know what full unity is or can look like."

Members of both denominations have overwhelmingly responded positively to the close partnership between the two churches.

"What we got back was, by and large, very positive," Mills said about responses to a 2005 statement distributed to members for feedback.

ELCA-UMC dialogue has gone on for 30 years with the first round exploring the sacrament of baptism (1977-79), and then the issues of episcopacy (1985-87). The third round of dialogue, from 2001 to 2007, explored the two churches' understandings of Eucharist and concluded in the 2004 recommendation for an interim agreement.

An interim "Eucharistic sharing" agreement was approved by the United Methodist Council of Bishops in May and by ELCA representatives in August 2005.

Agreement highlights include encouraging mutual prayer and support, joint Bible studies as well as histories and theological traditions of both churches, joint programs of theological discussions, and joint outreach and social ministry efforts.

Moreover the agreement also encourages joint services of Holy Communion based on guidelines that will be created by both churches.

In 2005, "Confessing Our Faith Together: A Statement Toward Full Communion by the ELCA-UMC Bilateral Dialogue" was completed.

UMC has already received responses to "Confessing our Faith Together," and ELCA expects to receive theirs this spring.

"There was consistent and wide consensus in congregational evaluations of [the comment] that encouraged a relationship of full communion, recognizing that these two churches already live in proximity and thrive in numerous communities of cooperation throughout the ELCA and the UMC," said the Rev. Michael Trice, the ELCA's director of ecumenical formation and interreligious relations, to UMNS.

"Of the over 8,000 responses to the survey, ELCA congregations revealed that UMC churches were a consistent and enduring partner in local congregations throughout both of these communions," he noted.

Current concerns that still need to be addressed include the actual implementation of full communion.

"That's the part we have to live into," UMC's Mill said. "Now we need to explore what difference this makes for our congregations."

If approved, the ELCA Church Council will recommend a vote on the resolution on full communion with The United Methodist Church to occur at ELCA's 11th Biennial Churchwide Assembly, Aug. 17-23, 2009 in Minneapolis. UMC's vote will take place at the General Conference on Apr. 29, 2008.