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United Methodists, Lutherans approach historic moment

A UMNS Report
By Linda Bloom*

August 18, 2009

The Rev. Donald McCoid oversees ecumenical relations for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, but he was born into a Methodist household.

So he is especially ready to celebrate if the Lutherans vote Aug. 20 on a full communion agreement with The United Methodist Church during their churchwide assembly in Minneapolis.

The historic vote is the culmination of decades of dialogue shining a light on substantial consensus on subjects from justification by faith to the Eucharist among the religious traditions founded by towering figures in Christian history Martin Luther and John Wesley.

"It feels like a completion&ellipsis;even though it's just the beginning," said the Rev. Betty Gamble of the United Methodist Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns. "This moment was built on many other moments and hours, prayers and effort over 30 years."

Bishop Gregory Palmer, president of the United Methodist Council of Bishops, will preach at the Lutheran assembly, just as Lutheran Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson did during the 2008 United Methodist General Conference in Fort Worth, Texas. McCoid was there, too, as United Methodists approved the pact.

In essence, full communion means that each church acknowledges the other as a partner in the Christian faith, recognizes the authenticity of each other's baptism and Eucharist, observes the validity of their respective ministries and is committed to working together toward greater unity.

The definition of full communion found in Paragraph 2401.2 of the United Methodist Book of Discipline says such a relationship "does not mean there are no differences or distinctions between the churches, but does mean that these differences are not church dividing."

Enriching one another

Both sides view the theological distinctions as being complementary and enriching.

"The Lutheran understanding of human incapacity and the United Methodist view of the transformative power of God's grace inform and encourage greater clarity and discernment," dialogue team members wrote in a "Frequently Asked Questions" paper. "In spite of different emphases, these are not church dividing issues, due to each tradition's strong Trinitarian theology and confidence in the grace of God for our salvation."

Luther, a major figure in the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s, believed that salvation was a gift from God, received by grace through belief in Jesus Christ. Wesley, Methodism's founder, famously found his own heart "strangely warmed" in 1738 while listening to words from Luther's commentary on Romans and considered Luther's doctrine of justification by faith alone to be the mark of real Christianity.

McCoid points to the results of the Catholic Church's Second Vatican Council, which ended in 1965, and the ecumenical conversations that followed as the beginning of the modern talks between Methodists and Lutherans. Christians became interested in learning about each other, he said, "instead of making assumptions about what other people believe."

Baptism became the focus of the first round of dialogue between United Methodists and what was then the Lutheran Council in the United States from 1977 to 1979. A six-session discussion of ministries, specifically the episcopacy, followed from 1985 to 1987.

The goal in the first two rounds, according to McCoid, was to gain a better understanding of each other's beliefs. "It was important to just talk about doctrine and theology and listen to one another and make common statements of agreement," he explained.

Full communion becomes goal

Changes among the Lutheran participants contributed to a slowdown of the dialogue process. The new Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, formed in 1987, adopted a statement on ecumenism in 1991 that "gave the goal of full communion and put it before us," McCoid said.

Full communion agreements with other bodies came first -- the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Reformed Church in America and the United Church of Christ in 1997 and the Moravian and Episcopal churches in 1999.

"The dialogue teams were very compatible. Each of them came with a will to find commonalities. There was no one on either team looking for a confrontation."
The Rev. Betty Gamble

McCoid believes the experiences gained through dialogues with these other denominations helped advance the process with United Methodists. "The United Methodists probably have been the freshest of our dialogues, even though there's been a 30-year history," he said.

Gamble, who served as staff for most of the third round of dialogue, said she could see "a logical progress" from the previous rounds, which made the work of the 2001-2007 team move faster. "The dialogue teams were very compatible," she recalled. "Each of them came with a will to find commonalities. There was no one on either team looking for a confrontation."

McCoid pointed to the United Methodist baptism study, "By Water and the Spirit," first adopted in 1996, and "This Holy Mystery," the 2004 United Methodist statement on Holy Communion, as "breakthrough" documents that "helped renew understanding and even deeper dialogue" between the two denominations.

Both communions believe that baptism performed in the name of the Trinity "using water according to Christ's command and promise" is valid. As a sacrament, it is an entrance into the holy catholic church, not just a particular denomination, so the rite itself proclaims the unity of the church.

Means of grace

For both Lutherans and United Methodists, Holy Communion, or the Lord's Supper, is a fundamental means of grace. Both communions affirm the special emphasis found in "This Holy Mystery" on confessing that the Holy Spirit conveys Christ's presence in communion. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America also believes that there is a real presence of Jesus Christ in the sacrament.

"Both communions agree that Christ is truly present, that he is shared and received in the forms of bread and wine in the Eucharist, and that the blessings of this Supper are received by faith alone," the dialogue teams said.

The two denominations have similar views on ordination. The United Methodist Church has two forms of ordained ministry deacons called to ministry through word and service and elders called to ministry through word, service, sacrament and order. The Lutherans have one office of ordained ministry of word and sacrament.

The precursor to full communion was the "interim Eucharist sharing agreement" approved in 2005. The Rev. Stephen J. Sidorak Jr., top executive of the Commission on Christian Unity, called the United Methodist vote three years later "a momentous event" for the denomination.

He heralded the first such official relationship for the heirs of Wesley as "worthy of denominational celebration because, for us, it genuinely represents an ecumenical breakthrough."

A similar celebration will be in the offing if Lutheran delegates approve the full communion agreement by a two-thirds vote and then pass legislation setting up a coordinating committee.

McCoid is optimistic.

"I really look forward to this agreement," he said. "We have always been kin. We've been cousins and now we'll be part of a closer family."

*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York.

News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or newsdesk@umcom.org.