With pomp and ceremony on January 6, the Episcopal (Anglican) Church in the United States and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) formally inaugurated full communion between the two churches with a liturgy lasting almost three hours at the Washington National Cathedral.

The Epiphany Day service, attended by 3, 500 people, symbolized a new relationship between two of the most prominent denominations in the U.S.. The 5.2-million-member ELCA and the 2.5-million-member Episcopal Church now fully recognize each other's members, ministries and sacraments, and can exchange clergy.

While the two denominations remain distinct bodies with their own traditions and denominational structures, the agreement will help the churches with common mission work and allow greater flexibility in staffing individual churches and parishes. This is particularly needed in poor urban areas and in rural areas, many of which have older congregations with declining numbers.

More important though, according to church leaders, is what the agreement means for the future of Christian unity in the U.S. and elsewhere. "We join together in Jesus' name to share in his sacraments, in his ministry, and in his mission, as one body in the power of one spirit," H. George Anderson, Presiding Bishop of the ELCA, said as he greeted those at the service. Present were prominent members of both churches, as well as a host of Protestant, Roman Catholic and other church representatives.

The U.S. agreement reflects good relationships between Lutherans and Anglicans in many countries. Lutheran churches in Nordic and Baltic countries already enjoy communion with the Anglican churches of the British Isles.

The new relationship between the two U.S. churches, spelled out in a shared document, "Called to Common Mission" (CCM), does not represent a formal merger of the two denominations, and the January 6 service was careful to include elements of both Anglican and Lutheran liturgical traditions. Leaders of both denominations played prominent roles in the liturgy, with Bishop Anderson presiding at the service and Frank Griswold, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, serving as preacher.

Bishop Griswold quoted generously from both the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer (a book of Anglican liturgy dating back to the 16th century) and from Martin Luther, but said both denominations would have to learn to be reconciled to each other. He compared the two churches to the wise men who left their comfortable lives to follow a star and greet Jesus—the event commemorated on Epiphany.

Article continues below

"If the church in its many parts is to be an active sign and minister of reconciliation, it must live as a reconciled community; otherwise its preaching will be in vain," Bishop Griswold said. "And so it is that we must leave home and follow the star. To be sure there is room in our saddlebags for the Augsburg Confession [a key 16th-century doctrinal statement for Lutherans] and the Book of Common Prayer, but a great deal will have to be left behind, particularly attitudes and self-perceptions which keep us from joyfully welcoming one another as brothers and sisters in the communion of the Holy Spirit, and opening ourselves to the gifts of grace and truth to be found in one another's churches."

Bishop Griswold said the formal declaration of full communion was "just a beginning of the journey. Where we will be led God alone knows. The divine imagination exceeds all our efforts to comprehend and contain it, and what use God will ultimately make of our ecclesiastical arrangements or where they will take us or [what they will] require of us in the days ahead, may well surprise us all."

Bishop Griswold's sermon echoed remarks he made at a news conference on January 5. When asked if the agreement was a step towards the eventual merger of the two denominations, Bishop Griswold said it was not, but added that it should be seen as a step in the larger movement towards Christian unity. Where that would eventually take the churches was anyone's guess, he added.

"God is a God of surprises," he told reporters. "And often our tidy little plans get stretched and transformed into ways way past our imagining."

In a speech to the congregation at the January 6 service, Dr Ishmael Noko, a leading Zimbabwean theologian and general secretary of the Geneva-based Lutheran World Federation, said: "As the two churches now celebrate and seal a fellowship of full communion, the full meaning of this event is a deeply spiritual one. Christian communion in its genuine sense is always communion with Christ. Unlike partnerships between airline companies, and/or commercial banks, communion agreements between churches have their basis and their purpose beyond themselves.

"Theologically speaking, unity in Christ is not a result of negotiations," he said. "Rather, church negotiations are themselves a result of the gift of unity given to us by God in Christ, challenging us daily to find appropriate and visible expression of unity in worship and mission."

Article continues below

Dr Noko warmly welcomed the U.S. agreement as "a positive contribution towards the search for peace and unity among God's people for the sake of the world."

Despite earlier rumors that members of Word Alone, a dissenting group of Lutherans opposing the agreement, might try to disrupt the service, there was no protest. But Word Alone representatives attended the service and the news conference. They claim that aspects of the agreement—such as the acceptance of the "historic episcopate," an Anglican tradition that states only bishops tracing their succession back to Jesus' apostles can ordain priests and bishops—violate basic Lutheran traditions.

In an interview with ENI, Word Alone spokesperson Christopher Hershman, an ordained ELCA minister, said he was very concerned about what the service symbolized, saying it appeared that the "ELCA has capitulated to the Episcopalians."

As one example, he said he was not happy to see the traditional "sprinkling of water," a purification rite used in Anglican services.

"Where does this go? I don't know," Hershman told ENI. "Only the Lord knows. But I have real concerns about where our leadership is taking us."

Bishop Griswold said at the news conference that many hoped the agreement would lead to "ever-widening and deepening relationships of shared life and mission with other churches of the Reformation as well as with the Church of Rome and the churches of the East."

The service - held in one of the most stately of US cathedrals - included a variety of prayers spoken in English and in other languages symbolizing both churches' histories and ongoing mission work: Spanish, Creole, Ojibwa (Native American), Cantonese, Latvian and German.

In London, Arun Kataria, press secretary for Dr George Carey, the Archbishop of Canterbury, told ENI: "The archbishop is fully aware of the agreement, and welcomes all positive steps on the road to full, visible Christian unity." Archbishop Carey is the head of the worldwide Anglican Communion.

Related Elsewhere

WorldAlone's Web site offers information about the organization and its opposition to CCM.

The ELCA's site offers a more positive take on full communion with the Episcopal Church, as does the Episcopal News Service.

Some celebrated the full communion by implementing the "Called to Common Mission" agreement in New Year's Eve services. Read the Los Angeles Times preview coverage of the events.

Christianity Today's past coverage of the communion process includes:

Lutheran-Anglican Agreement Ineffective Because It's Unknown, Says New Bishop | British, European priests are often unaware of 1996 pact for full communion. (June 22, 2000)

Dwelling in Unity? | Lutherans, Episcopalians aspire to full communion, but differences remain over role of bishops. (Oct. 4, 1999)

Lutherans, Episcopalians Revive Talks (July 13, 1998)

Role of Bishops Stalls Lutheran-Anglican Unity (Oct. 6, 1997)

Back to the Drawing Board for Ecumenism? | Some clergy resist Lutheran-Episcopal concordat (April 4, 1997)