WASHINGTON, Jan. 2 (RNS)--The stately Washington National Cathedral will be the site of a colorful celebration of "full communion" between the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Episcopal Church at 10:30 a.m. Saturday--the Feast of the Epiphany--as the two churches join to celebrate a new relationship for the 21st century.

Hundreds are expected at the cathedral to celebrate the implementation of the "Called to Common Mission" agreement, which will allow the two churches--with a combined membership of 7.7 million--to swap clergy and share in common mission projects.

The accord, ratified by Lutherans in 1999 and the Episcopalians in 2000, stops far short of an outright merger but allows the two denominations from divergent historical backgrounds to weave their ministries together.

"There is no more fitting way to launch our shared mission and ministry than by hearing Christ's promise and welcoming his presence in this eucharistic service," said Lutheran Presiding Bishop H. George Anderson, who will lead the communion portion of the service.

The Rt. Rev. Frank T. Griswold, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, will deliver the sermon and preside over the renewal of baptismal vows of the hundreds of guests and dignitaries.

The accord has taken 40 years of dialogue to resolve and overcome sharp disagreement. The first draft was floated by the Episcopalians in 1991 and ratified in 1997. Lutherans, however, failed by just six votes to pass the measure the same year. The final draft was passed by Lutherans in 1999, and then by the Episcopalians last July.

The agreement will allow both churches to share precious resources in rural and urban areas. The future of the deal is best seen in places like Bridgton, Maine, where the Rev. David Snyder, a Lutheran, serves as pastor to St. Peter Episcopal Church, a 45-member parish without a full-time pastor.

The Rev. Daniel Martensen, the Lutherans' director of ecumenical affairs, said the agreement bridges an "ecumenical chasm" between the two churches.

"The bridge has been under construction for nearly four decades; it spans not only two U.S. communions, but also continents," Martensen said in a statement produced by both churches.

Still, the agreement is not without its critics. A large faction in the Lutheran church opposes the agreement because of new ordination standards agreed to by Lutheran negotiators.

Historically, Lutheran pastors could be ordained by either other pastors or the local bishop; Episcopalians insist on ordination only by a bishop who is a member of the "historic episcopate" stretching back to the early church.

Some Lutherans, particularly in the upper Midwest, say requiring ordination by bishops runs against Lutheran identity. They want their pastors--and not just bishops--to continue to ordain new pastors, but such pastors would not be able to serve in Episcopal parishes. When the Lutherans meet in Indianapolis in August, church leaders hope to draft a final compromise.

The. Rev. Mark Chavez, executive director of the Word Alone Network, which opposes the agreement, called the Washington ceremony a "sad occasion."

"It's celebrating a false unity," Chavez said. "The unity is not based on truth, and there is no unity in the historic episcopate. It hasn't united the [Episcopal Church] with the Catholic Church or the Orthodox Church, so why will it bring unity with the Lutherans?"

The ceremony hopes to combine the best talent from both churches, with the Cathedral Choir singing alongside the acclaimed St. Olaf College Choir, a Lutheran-affiliated school. Representatives of the Worldwide Anglican Communion--of which the Episcopal Church is the U.S. branch--will attend the ceremony, along with officials from the Lutheran World Federation.

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