From the Worldwide Faith News archives

Four Denominations Gather to Celebrate "Full Communion"

Date 08 Oct 1998 23:46:44

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    Four Denominations Gather to Celebrate 
    "Full Communion" 
    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Reformed doctrines such as predestination be withdrawn and that suspicions 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 
of Christ." 
    "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 
worship him." 
    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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