ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton points to full communion agreements as a beacon of hope during uncertain times.
This year the church celebrates the 25th anniversary of the Formula of Agreement, a 1997 declaration of full communion between the ELCA and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) (PCUSA), the Reformed Church in America (RCA) and the United Church of Christ (UCC).
“We give thanks to God for 25 years of visible unity among our churches and the mission and ministries we share,” Eaton said. “We appreciate the wisdom of those whose faithful dialogue resulted in the Formula of Agreement, offering us a way forward as Lutheran and Reformed churches through mutual affirmation and admonition.”
According to “The Vision of the ELCA,” the “characteristics of full communion are theological and missiological implications of the gospel that allow for variety and flexibility.” These stress that the church acts ecumenically for the sake of the world, not for itself alone.
“In a deeply divided world, [the agreement] is a countercultural witness of acknowledging difference without becoming divided, of seeking unity in our God-given diversity,” Eaton explained.
This, in turn, encourages creativity.
“[The agreement] has strengthened our collective witness, helped us to think more broadly, hear from others who may have different views, and at the same time, we’ve learned how to live and love together,” said J. Herbert Nelson, stated clerk of the General Assembly for the PCUSA.
Full participation from each church body is essential, added John C. Dorhauer, UCC general minister and president. “Each of the participants has brought something of great value and worth to the relationship,” he said. “Even when tensions were present in dialogues that were not easy to navigate because of our differences, we bore witness to the power of Christ’s love by staying at the table and maintaining deep respect for one another.
“In a world torn apart by theological and political divides, the modeling of this kind of love and respect in the presence of such division is a balm to a wounded body of Christ. I covet our agreement and promise to it the ongoing support of a grateful and transformed United Church of Christ.”
“In a deeply divided world, [the agreement] is a countercultural witness of acknowledging difference without becoming divided.”
Fellowship despite differences
As the church bodies celebrate the 25th anniversary of the agreement, several ministries exemplify a growing tradition of cooperation, said Kathryn Lohre, ELCA executive for ecumenical and inter-religious relations.
This includes shared resources and partnerships as well as federated congregations, which occur when two churches join as one while maintaining distinct denominational identities, she said.
According to the Presbyterian Mission Agency, federations began in the 1890s as a solution for everything from clergy shortages to struggles with worship space and attendance.
Faith United Church in York, Pa., was born from St. Paul Lutheran and Ickesburg UCC. They previously shared pastoral services for more than four decades before merging officially in 2009. Since then, Faith United members have maintained denominational affiliations and adhered to both ELCA and UCC policies. They also honor traditions of their predecessor congregations.
Truckee (Calif.) Lutheran Presbyterian Church (TLPC) also is a successful federated congregation. Founded as an ELCA congregation in 1993, TLPC later added Presbyterian members. The congregation offers “inclusive, casual [and] traditional” worship and ministries that emphasize social justice, youth and community outreach.
“In our working together, we have grown in our capacity to share the gospel.”
The Formula of Agreement also affords representation of the ELCA on partner boards and committees, said Christopher Olkiewicz, a member of the PCUSA General Assembly Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Relations. As a pastor of Windsor Heights (Iowa) Lutheran Church, he finds ecumenical work vital and “transformative.”
“When we enter into relationships with other denominations, we effectively proclaim and serve the gospel,” he said. “We are led into new ways of being and new service opportunities. In our working together, we have grown in our capacity to share the gospel.”
Eddy Alemán experienced this directly. When the agreement was adopted in 1997, he was an emerging leader in his Toronto-area RCA congregation. He’s now RCA general secretary. “I think [a] sense of disunity and poor witness is what was being lamented as conversations began and eventually led to the 1997 [agreement],” he recalled. “This example of fellowship despite differences gives me hope amid growing polarization in the North American church.”
Nelson said an emphasis on the continuation of Lutheran-Reformed partnerships has provided an opportunity to “share the experiences we might need to struggle [with] throughout our denominations.”
“I have been gratified to be able to turn to colleagues in ministry in other denominations that are going through similar struggles that we are going through,” he said. “It has given us an opportunity to look beyond the United States—and our own selves—as we have engaged in many issues with regards to foreign countries and how we see some of the atrocities that may be happening in those countries and how we have been able to stand together on issues of justice.”
Alemán agreed: “The urgent work of reconciliation and cooperation requires renewed strength and courage, which we can only find in God. It necessitates trust in, and openness to, the Spirit. It demands an unqualified, intentional and prayerful commitment to heal the brokenness of the body of Christ.”
For more information, see elca.org/ecumenical.