The nation's largest Lutheran group has embraced greater unity with several Protestant denominations and has taken a step toward theological reconciliation with Roman Catholics.

But the Churchwide Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) was unable to muster a two-thirds majority for closer relations with the Episcopal Church, in part because of differing theological views over the office of bishop. Nevertheless, the ELCA voted to keep conversations going with the Episcopalians and discuss the matter in 1999.

CLOSING THE RIFT: In its August gathering in Philadelphia, the 5.2 million-member ELCA agreed to share Holy Communion, pastors, and members with the 2.7 million-member Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), 400,000-member Reformed Church in America, and 1.5 million-member United Church of Christ. Those denominations endorsed the proposal at conventions earlier in the summer.

The Lutheran-Reformed agreement heals a nearly 450-year-old rift among leaders of the Protestant Reformation. The split dates to the sixteenth century—a period when Martin Luther and Reformed theologian John Calvin agreed on the authority of the Bible and the belief that salvation is a gift based on faith. Lutherans, however, later split with the Calvinists over an understanding of the Eucharist.

Lutherans believe in the presence of Christ in the bread and wine of the sacrament. Reformed churches emphasize the presence of Christ in the community gathered by the Holy Spirit.

The new agreement declares:

Recognition of each church's baptisms and Eucharists.

Joint worship services and freedom for members to transfer to the other's churches.

—Mutual recognition of clergy with assignments across denominational lines. (Clergy ...

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