The interim agreement approved by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) is a small but significant step toward unity with the United Methodist Church. The churches have a combined membership of 13 million.
The ultimate goal, leaders said, is a "full communion" pact that will not only allow for the sharing of the Eucharist, or Communion, but enable clergy to move freely between both churches, especially in rural and urban areas where small congregations struggle to afford full-time pastors.
The interim pact was approved by a 94 percent margin by the 1,018 delegates attending the Lutherans' Churchwide Assembly here. The meeting ends Sunday.
"We are committed to working for the goal of full communion, but there is no timetable for that at this time," said the Rev. Randy Lee, the Lutherans' ecumenical director.
The Lutherans currently have "full communion" agreements with the Episcopal Church, the Moravian Church, the United Church of Christ, the Reformed Church in America and the Presbyterian Church (USA). The Methodists share "full communion" with three historically black churches, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church and the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church.
Both churches are already members of the National Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches. The Lutherans are full members and the Methodists 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 each other" in joint celebrations of the Eucharist, Lee said. Both churches said further talks are needed on how clergy are prepared for ministry before more progress can be made.
The two churches have been in dialogue since the 1970s but started talks on 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 the unity we already share in Christ, and makes credible our common witness in the world," an ELCA document said.
Leaders from both churches said they share "almost identical" theological understandings of the Eucharist, specifically about the "real presence" of Jesus in the bread and wine used in the sacrament.
While Roman Catholics believe the bread and wine are transformed into the body and blood of Jesus Christ, Lutherans believe that Jesus is "really present, shared and received" in the bread and wine. "This is something that would be key, pivotal, for Lutherans, this affirmation of the Real Presence," said Bishop Allan Bjornberg of the Lutherans' Denver-based Rocky Mountain Synod, who co-chaired the talks.
Methodist Bishop William Oden, who oversees ecumenical affairs for United Methodist bishops, said Methodists accept "on faith" the presence of Jesus in the elements of Communion but shy away from trying to define it.