DENVER, Sept. 19 (RNS)--Denominational dance cards are full these days as churches make their way around twirl their way around the floor in search of new alliances.

They're not looking to marry, but you might say they're after long-term commitment--one that will lead to a sharing of ministers,communion and mission to the world.

The historic agreement reached here in July by Episcopaliansand Lutherans was but one of many such alliances already sealed or inthe works by the nation's mainline Protestant denominations.

Lutherans have similar full communion agreements with Presbyterians,the United Church of Christ, the Moravian Church and the Reformed Churchin America.

Episcopalians have communion with the Church of Sweden and arehoping to open lines to the Pentecostal movement in this country.

United Methodists are having talks with historicallyAfrican-American churches--the African Methodist Episcopal, AfricanMethodist Episcopal Zion and Christian Methodist Episcopal churches.Those three denominations, all Methodist in nature and formed because ofslavery, are talking about some kind of arrangement, maybe even union.

Even Roman Catholics are--somewhat, and sometimes uncertainly--on the floor. The Vatican signed an agreement last year with worldLutherans in which the centuries-old bodies agreed about a key belief ofLutheranism: justification by faith. It is the belief that people aresaved by Jesus Christ, not by good works.

But it also issued a statement in early September saying the onlysure path to salvation was through Rome and that other churches were"defective." The statement was widely perceived in the non-Catholicworld as a new stumbling block on the road to unity. A week later,however, Pope John Paul II said the church remains committed to theecumenical movement.

"The rewards of 30 years of careful dialogue are spilling out allover the place," said James Solheim, communications director for theEpiscopal Church in New York.

Christians often quote one of the final prayers attributed to Jesus,when he prayed to God that all his followers "might be one so that theworld may believe that you have sent me."

Despite centuries of division, unity is still a goal, but what itmeans has changed over the years.

As usual, the people are ahead of their leaders. There are dozens ofunited congregations around the country: Episcopalians and Lutheransshare buildings; United Methodists, Presbyterians and United Church ofChrist members share buildings and ministers. Christians go to oneanother's worship services, and many are no longer loyal to thedenomination they were reared in.

Don Armentrout is one example. A lifelong Lutheran, Armentroutteaches church history at the Episcopal University of the South inSewanee, Tenn., and for years has attended an Episcopal/Lutherancongregation because neither denomination can afford its own buildingand minister in Sewanee.

Despite that cost-saving alliance, Armentrout said the new alliances"aren't happening because of a survivalist mentality. The name of thegame today is sharing ministry and mission and buildings and outreach."

For decades, Protestants, and sometimes Catholics, have belonged tocouncils of churches so they can work together on community projects.

The official alliances promise more solid, assured relationships.

"What's going on is utterly remarkable," Armentrout said.

Talks aren't enough, though. The relationships "must be visible tothe world, so it shows we're not in competition with each other butdifferent forms of the same reality," said United Methodist Bishop BoydGrove, ecumenical officer for his denomination.

More than 30 years ago, a group of nine denominations formed theConsultation on Church Union (COCU), which had unity as its aim. But it never happened, and over the years unity was put on the backburner by many of the member churches, threatened with survival becauseof decreasing membership and income.

COCU served as a catalyst, Armentrout said, and churches that begandialogue continued it. COCU, now called Churches Uniting in Christ, hasasked its nine denominations to begin working at the local and regionallevels as much as possible.

Leaders hope by 2007 the nine will all have full communionagreements with each other, said Theodore Gill, Presbyterian ecumenicalofficer in Louisville, Ky. "It's a way of churches bridging the divideas well as being more effective," he said.

After the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), the Roman CatholicChurch began dialogues internationally, and those talks continue with awide variety of groups, among them the Eastern Orthodox, Episcopalians,Methodists and Lutherans.

Stumbling blocks in talks are wide: Catholics believe in the pope;Eastern Orthodox follow the ecumenical patriarch; Protestants eschew both. Ordination of women and whether communion is open toall also are roadblocks.

Another sticking point is the historic episcopate, or the beliefamong liturgical churches that their priests are symbolic descendantsfrom Saint Peter in an unbroken line.

Even those in the historic episcopate don't agree on who's in thatspecial club. The Eastern Orthodox believe they are but don't believethe Catholics are. The Catholics certainly believe they are, but theydon't include Episcopalians, who believe they are in that line, Grovesaid. Some Lutherans are, others are not.

Methodists are another case. "We Methodists know we're not," Grove said, laughing.

Despite the continuing differences, growing closer appears to be the future course for Christendom's many streams.

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