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Four Denominations Gather to Celebrate "Full Communion"
PCUSA NEWS <email@example.com>
08 Oct 1998 23:46:44
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Four Denominations Gather to Celebrate
by Alexa Smith
CHICAGO-An ecumenical agreement allowing four Reformation churches to
officially combine their ministries but retain their separate identities in
what is being called "full communion" was celebrated here Oct. 3 at a
banquet hosted by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
Official representatives and members of the PC(USA), the Reformed
Church in America (RCA), the United Church of Christ (UCC) and the
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) celebrated the new unity
that, following disagreements lasting more than 400 years, allows the
churches to share clergy and sacraments, engage in ongoing theological work
and undertake more unified mission.
The "full communion" document, known as the Formula of Agreement, calls
for the historically divided churches to
* "recognize each other as churches in which the gospel is rightly
preached and the sacraments rightly administered according to the word of
* "continue to recognize each other's baptism and authorize and
encourage the sharing of the Lord's Supper among their members"
* "recognize each other's various ministries and make provisions for
the orderly exchange of ordained ministers of Word and sacrament"
* establish appropriate channels of consultation and decision-making
within the existing structures of the churches.
It also requires that Lutheran confessional statements condemning
Reformed doctrines such as predestination be withdrawn and that suspicions
and condemnations among all the communions be put aside.
The agreement was ratified by the partner churches in the summer of
1997. All four denominations are rapidly revising their constitutional
documents to put the Formula into practice. This year's PC(USA) General
Assembly just sent Amendment C - lifting the term limits placed on
ministers of another denomination serving in PC(USA) congregations - to its
presbyteries for a vote.
"The last decade recorded fragmentation of the world community," said
the Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, stated clerk of the PC(USA), noting also the
history of schisms that have plagued the Christian church for centuries.
"The Bosnias and Rwandas, the gaps between the rich and poor. ... In the
midst of [those fractures], our churches are making the step together [for]
the unity of Christ's church and the unity of the world.
"That's a message the gospel calls us to share," he said.
Official dialogues between the long-divided Reformed and Lutheran
churches in North America began in 1962. The latest round of dialogues
began in 1988, when the Lutheran Church in America, the American Lutheran
Church and the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches united as the
ELCA. But the separation goes back to the 16th century, when Reformed and
Anabaptist Christians were struggling to distinguish between orthodoxy and
heresy in a politically turbulent and religiously intolerant Europe.
A second-generation Protestant, John Calvin - like Martin Luther before
him - adhered to doctrines such as justification by faith, the sovereignty
of God and the inadequacy of human works to achieve salvation. But Calvin
differed somewhat from Luther in his understandings of the Eucharist, of
aspects of Christology and the doctrine of predestination - and it is from
Calvin's teachings that Reformed practices emerged.
To say that those differences need no longer divide the churches'
ministries has been almost inconceivable in his lifetime, said Presiding
Bishop H. George Anderson of the ELCA. The former church history professor
recalled teaching about the manifold splits and breaks among Reformation
churches using the image of a tree's separate branches.
"But a miracle happened," he told the 1,500 clergy, elders and
ecumenical representatives at the banquet. Drawing on Rev. 22:2, he
described a tree of life whose leaves are for the healing of the nations.
"We're not quite grafted yet," he said, "but we're growing together."
World Council of Churches general secretary Konrad Raiser insisted that
"full communion" goes beyond the healing of four streams of U.S.
Protestantism. He called the agreement a "balm for the healing of the body
"I have a personal sense of emotion tonight, conditioned by the fact
that, in my own life history, I have moved through [each of these]
traditions. I was baptized in a very traditional Lutheran way, confirmed
in the United church, married in the Reformed church in Switzerland and
ordained in the Evangelical Church of Germany [which includes both Lutheran
and Reformed]," Raiser said.
"I knew all along you were related. And I feel satisfaction saying you
finally belong to an extended family."
Though the Reformed churches were previously in corresponding
relationships, the Formula of Agreement both tightens and broadens the ties
among them, according to sources within the PC(USA) Office of the General
Assembly. And for North American Lutherans, the agreement is a first.
But the existing "family" connections came as no surprise to the
gathered participants who were given time for their own testimonials.
Executive Ed Gehres of the PC(USA)'s Detroit Presbytery reported that
individual Presbyterian and Lutheran churches in Ann Arbor, Mich., closed
Oct. 4 to worship together using the liturgy prepared for the formal "full
communion" service of the four churches here that same day.
"That is hope for the future of this Formula," Gehres said. UCC
executive vice president the Rev. Tom Dipko of Cleveland, Ohio, told how a
Lutheran professor in the Church of Sweden helped shape his own faith and
ministry - and asked that others whose lives "in the church visible have
passed" be remembered for their work for greater church unity.
Presbyterian Youth Connection co-moderator Kelli Rudolph thanked the four
communions for embodying the good news that "Jesus Christ is where it is
at" and for demonstrating to youth that "our churches can come together and
Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, general secretary of the RCA, said the
"apt" ecumenical image for that coming together is the biblical "river of
life" that nourishes the tree of life for the healing of the nations.
"We all share" in the common waters of baptism, Granberg-Michaelson
told his listeners, "but more than that, we are part of what is flowing
together into the future, into that one river of life."
Worship books and denominational hymnals were exchanged between
officials of the four churches, opening the way for the partner churches
to, as Granberg-Michaelson put it, "worship the way into the future ...
rather than talk [the] way."
The gathering was a prelude to the formal Eucharistic celebration held
Oct. 4 in the University of Chicago's Rockefeller Chapel. Approximately
400 people attended.
Also present was president Paul H. Sherry of the UCC. The Rev. Milan
Opocensky, general secretary of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches,
and the Rev. Ishmael Noko, general secretary of the Geneva-based Lutheran
World Federation, represented their organizations.
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