The interim agreement approved by the Evangelical Lutheran Church inAmerica (ELCA) is a small but significant step toward unity with the UnitedMethodist Church. The churches have a combined membership of 13 million.
The ultimate goal, leaders said, is a "full communion" pact that willnot only allow for the sharing of the Eucharist, or Communion, but enableclergy to move freely between both churches, especially in rural and urbanareas where small congregations struggle to afford full-time pastors.
The interim pact was approved by a 94 percent margin by the 1,018delegates attending the Lutherans' Churchwide Assembly here. The meetingends Sunday.
"We are committed to working for the goal of full communion, but thereis no timetable for that at this time," said the Rev. Randy Lee, theLutherans' ecumenical director.
The Lutherans currently have "full communion" agreements with theEpiscopal Church, the Moravian Church, the United Church of Christ, theReformed Church in America and the Presbyterian Church (USA). The Methodists share "full communion" with three historically blackchurches, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the African MethodistEpiscopal Zion Church and the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church.
Both churches are already members of the National Council of Churchesand the World Council of Churches. The Lutherans are full members and theMethodists provisional members of a new broad-based ecumenical group,Christian Churches Together in the USA.
The interim agreement allows both denominations to "get to know eachother" in joint celebrations of the Eucharist, Lee said. Both churches saidfurther talks are needed on how clergy are prepared for ministry before moreprogress can be made.
The two churches have been in dialogue since the 1970s but started talkson Communion in 2001; the interim agreement was proposed earlier this year.The Methodists' Council of Bishops has already approved the agreement. "This agreement, though short of full communion, makes more visible theunity we already share in Christ, and makes credible our common witness inthe world," an ELCA document said.
Leaders from both churches said they share "almost identical"theological understandings of the Eucharist, specifically about the "realpresence" of Jesus in the bread and wine used in the sacrament.
While Roman Catholics believe the bread and wine are transformed intothe body and blood of Jesus Christ, Lutherans believe that Jesus is "reallypresent, shared and received" in the bread and wine. "This is something that would be key, pivotal, for Lutherans, thisaffirmation of the Real Presence," said Bishop Allan Bjornberg of theLutherans' Denver-based Rocky Mountain Synod, who co-chaired the talks.
Methodist Bishop William Oden, who oversees ecumenical affairs forUnited Methodist bishops, said Methodists accept "on faith" the presence ofJesus in the elements of Communion but shy away from trying to define it.