Lutheran Agreements Fuel Multilateral Ecumenical Movement

Jan 31, 2003 06:18 PM EST

CHICAGO -- Ecumenical agreements the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) forged with the Episcopal Church and with three Reformed churches are providing some help to nine church bodies that are moving toward relationships of full communion, according to the two ELCA representatives who attended a Jan. 15-17 meeting of the Churches Uniting in Christ (CUIC) ministry task force in Birmingham, Ala.

Members of the CUIC ministry task force at this meeting had reviewed the ELCA's agreements, said the Rev. Mark N. Wilhelm, associate director for theological education, ELCA Division for Ministry. They did not find the key to reconciling their ministries, but they "took heart" over the possibility that it could be done, he said.

The nine churches have "widely varying patterns of ministry in each church," said the Rev. Philip L. Hougen, bishop of the ELCA's Southeastern Iowa Synod, Iowa City. They face issues similar to but not identical to those the ELCA faced while fashioning recent full-communion agreements, he said.

In 1997 the ELCA adopted "A Formula of Agreement" -- a full- communion agreement with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Reformed Church in America and United Church of Christ. In 1999 the ELCA approved "Called to Common Mission" -- an agreement of full communion with the Episcopal Church.

The Episcopal Church, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and United Church of Christ are among the nine CUIC churches. The others are the African Methodist Episcopal Church, African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, International Council of Community Churches and United Methodist Church. The nine churches include about 22 million Christians across the United States.

The CUIC churches will vote in 2007 about entering into a relationship of full communion -- each church retaining its own identity and structures, recognizing each other's ministries and sacraments, and opening the possibility of inviting ministers to serve in each other's churches. The CUIC churches have also pledged to join in a special mission to combat racism.

The Lutheran church was an observer during the 40-year process leading up to the formation of CUIC in January 2002, and the ELCA decided in 2001 to continue as a "partner in mission and dialogue" in the new organization's work toward the 2007 votes.

A "parallel conversation" between Episcopalians and Presbyterians is significant for the CUIC ministry task force, said Hougen, "because their orderings of ministry seem to be among those that are the most difficult to reconcile." Since the ELCA has full-communion agreements with both churches, "we have agreed to mutual availability of ministries across those denominational lines," he said.

The ELCA orders its lay and ordained ministries differently than both the Episcopal and Presbyterian churches, said Hougen. The Lutheran agreement with the Episcopal Church tried to address those differences more than its agreement with the Reformed churches, he said.

One issue involved the question of who oversees the church's ministries. "Historically, the Presbyterian church has seen 'oversight' as the responsibility of the presbytery, which is that collective body of leaders in a given territory," said Wilhelm. "Historically, the Episcopal Church has seen it embodied in the office of the bishop -- of that individual," he said.

Another issue involved the question of who is ordained. "Most traditions reserve the term 'presbyter' for ordained clergy, by which they normally mean ministers of Word and Sacrament," said Wilhelm. Presbyterians include clergy and elders in the office of presbyter, he said. While most traditions consider elders to serve a lay ministry, it is an ordained ministry in the Presbyterian church.

The full acceptance of elder as presbyter "is one of the more complicated ones for them to work through, because a variety of practices exist" among the CUIC churches, said Wilhelm. The Lutheran agreements of full communion raised an element of hope for the CUIC ministry task force in how they implemented the availability of ministers between churches, Wilhelm said. "If the minister from one church body goes to another, that minister will function according to the practices of the receiving church body," he said.

That means the CUIC churches can acknowledge a variety of ministries, but a member church would determine if it is appropriate for a specific minister to serve within that denomination, said Wilhelm. "It is the receiving body that determines whether a person shall be called to ministry and how a person shall conduct that ministry," he said. "That seemed to be a breakthrough for them in a way of beginning to deal with moving ahead with their work."

"Folks from the other denominations seem very eager for Lutheran input," said Hougen. "We have to be a bit humble, because, while I think it's significant that we have full-communion agreements with people on both sides of some of these issues, I'm not sure that we have answers for all of those issues that other churches face, in our agreements or otherwise," he said.

"It's important to keep this on the radar screen," said Hougen. "It's important for Protestant Christianity in America, because these nine denominations represent a major portion of mainline denominations, including three traditionally African American churches." He added, "It's important for us to be in conversation with them."

The next meeting of the CUIC ministry task force will be June 3-5. The ELCA is also in full communion with the Moravian Church in America. The ELCA is involved in direct dialogue with the African Methodist Episcopal Church and United Methodist Church, as well as with Mennonite, Orthodox and Roman Catholic representatives.

By Albert H. Lee
[email protected]