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"Full Communion"
among four Reform & Lutheran denominations

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bullet "God's will for creation is the unity for all things." Ephesians 1:9

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Since the Leuenberg Agreement was adopted in 1973, Reformed and Lutheran churches in Europe have shared full communion. This agreement includes Lutheran, Reformed, United, Methodist, Hussite Church, Waldensian Church, the Church of the Czech Brethren, and 5 South American church groups which had been founded by German immigrants.

That agreement facilitated discussions among various Reformed and Lutheran denominations in the United States. Meetings started in 1962. Initially included were:

bullet A number of Lutheran denominations who trace their ancestry back to Martin Luther.
bullet The Presbyterian Church (USA) and the Reformed Church in America, whose history goes back to the teachings of John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli.
bullet The United Church of Christ which "has roots in both the Reformed...and the Lutheran tradition... One of the UCC's ancestors—the Evangelical Synod of the West—was founded by Lutheran and Reformed immigrants from Germany." 6

Key events in the discussions were: 3

bullet 1962-1966: A series of meetings resulted in the "Marburg Revisited" document. It concluded that there are " insuperable obstacles to pulpit and altar fellowship" among the denominations.
bullet 1972-1974: Another round of discussions concluded "that declarations of church fellowship should be dealt with on a church-to-church body basis."
bullet 1981-1983: A third round prepared a joint statement "Invitation to Action." This included agreement on a number of issues: justification, the Lord's Supper and ministry. The document was eventually adopted by the Presbyterian Church(USA), the Reformed Church in America, The Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches, the American Lutheran Church and the United Church of Christ. The Lutheran Church in America did not adopt the document, but rather called for continued discussions.
bullet 1987: The Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches, The American Lutheran Church and the Lutheran Church in America merged to form the largest Lutheran body in the U.S.: The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).
bullet 1988-1992: The Lutheran-Reformed Committee for Theological Conversations prepared a report "A Common Calling: The Witness of Our Reformation Churches in North America Today." The committee recommended that:
bullet the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) [5.2 million members],
bullet the Presbyterian Church (USA), [2.7 million]
bullet the United Church of Christ (UCC) [1.5 million], and
bullet the Reformed Church in America (RCA) [0.3 million]

declare that they are in full communion with each other. This required:

  1. "that they recognize each other as churches in which the Gospel is rightly preached and the sacraments rightly administered according to the Word of God;
  2. that they withdraw any historic condemnation by one side or the other as inappropriate for the faith and life of our churches today;
  3. that they continue to recognize each other's Baptism and authorize and encourage the sharing of the Lord's Supper among their members;
  4. that they recognize each others' various ministries and make provision for the orderly exchange of ordained ministers of Word and Sacrament;
  5. that they establish appropriate channels of consultation and decision-making within the existing structures of the churches;
  6. that they commit themselves to an ongoing process of theological dialogue in order to clarify further the common understanding of the faith and foster its common expression in evangelism, witness, and service;
  7. that they pledge themselves to living together under the Gospel in such a way that the principle of mutual affirmation and admonition becomes the basis of a trusting relationship in which respect and love for the other will have a chance to grow."
bullet 1997: The four denominations voted on "A Formula of Agreement...on Entering into Full Communion on the Basis of 'A Common Calling.' " The Formula recognized that there have been mutual criticisms in the past, that the churches have reached a consensus on many key key doctrines, but that the churches continue to have different emphasis on some matters. "The churches know these stated intentions will challenge their self-understandings, their ways of living and acting, their structures, and even their general ecclesial ethos. The churches commit themselves to keep this legitimate concern of their capacity to enter into full communion at the heart of their new relation."
bullet On 1997-JUL-18  the RCA General Synod was the first denomination to approve of the agreement. A voice vote of 250 delegates included only a few negative responses. They also passed a resolution which mentioned that the three Reformed churches were already in "full table and pulpit fellowship, by virtue of Reformed polity and the fellowship shared through membership in the World Alliance of Reformed Churches." (Actually, this resolution is in error, because free exchange of ministers among the churches does not exist yet. Non-celibate gay and lesbian ministers of the UCC are not, at this time, able to preach in churches of the other denominations.)
bullet On 1997-JUN-19, the PC-USA General Assembly voted 489 to 38 to recommend full communion to its presbyteries.
bullet On 1997-JUL-5, a committee of the UCC unanimously approved the Formula. In keeping with their denominational motto "That We May All be One," their General Synod voted by a wide margin (about 690 to 10) to adopt full communion.
bullet On 1997-AUG-18 , ELCA voted 839 to 193 in favor of the proposal at their Churchwide Assembly.
bullet By 1998-MAR-11, a majority of the presbyteries of the Presbyterian Church (USA) had voted to ratify the agreement which was passed by their General Assembly. 7

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On 1998-OCT-4, "in one of the most inspiring ecumenical events of the century, more than 2,000 crowded into Rockefeller Chapel on the University of Chicago campus to celebrate the new relationship of full communion between four Lutheran and Reformed churches." The liturgy for the service was based on a joint document titled: "Guidelines for Celebration of the Sacraments in Settings of Shared Worship," 9

Eugene Turner, is responsible for ecumenical relations within the Presbyterian Church (USA). He said that that the Formula of Agreement will lead to closer cooperation and unity within Protestant denominations. It shows that denominational barriers among churches continue to be lowered.

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What "Full Communion" Means:

Full communion is not a plan to merge. The separate denominations continue to exit. The agreement does commit the churches to share in their mission to work locally and internationally and to develop procedures whereby clergy in one church body may serve as pastor in a church of another church body. The individual denominations will remain free to disagree on various issues. Rev. Frank Dietz of Texas, chair of the UCC's Council on Ecumenism, commented "The Formula doesn't decide everything in advance. It creates a foundation on which the four churches will build. Issues will be resolved as we live our life together." 5

Two of the most troublesome disagreements among the partners in full communion are:

bullet The nature of Christ's presence at the Lord's table:  Lutherans believe that Christ is physically present. John Thomas, the UCC's ecumenical officer, explained: "The Reformed concern was that this perspective, if pushed too far, could reduce God to the finite. So the Reformed stressed the sovereignty of God and the Spirit's role in drawing the believer to Christ. But Lutherans were uneasy that this perspective, if pushed too far, might remove Christ entirely from the Table. So we discovered that there was truth on the other side. We said to each other: Your truth, if held apart from our truth, is incomplete, and our truth also is incomplete without yours. Lutherans remind the church of God's descent in Christ into the midst of human life. The Reformed remind the church of the Spirit's power to unite us in Christ." 5
bullet Homosexual clergy: The UCC permits sexually active lesbians and gays, including those in committed relationships, to be ordained. However, not all congregations allow this. The other three denominations require that homosexual candidates for ordination first give a pledge of celibacy. Since each denomination still retains their ordination standards, actively gay and lesbian UCC clergy will probably not be allowed to serve in congregations of the other three churches.

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  1. E.G. Trexler, "Turning Toward Ecumenism,"
  2. "About Ecumenism," a list of articles on ecumenism at the ELCA web site,
  3. "Lutheran-Reformed Proposal"
  4. "Four churches end five centuries of separation," (temporary UCC top story)
  5. "Committee approves plan for full communion among four U.S. churches"
  6. "Synod votes by big margin for full communion with Lutheran church,"
  7. "Presbyteries Ratify Full Communion with Lutherans,"
  8. The Leuenberg Church Fellowship,"
  9. "Guidelines for Celebration of the Sacraments in Settings of Shared Worship,"

Copyright 1999 to 2004 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2004-OCT-16
Author: B.A. Robinson

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