The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) has approved an agreement already approved by The United Methodist Church (UMC) at the 2008 General Conference that the two churches enter into a relationship of full communion with each other.
The meaning of "full communion" between two churches is described in The Book of Discipline, paragraph 2401: Full communion describes the relationship between two or more Christian churches that (1) recognize in each other the one, holy, catholic and apostolic faith as expressed in the Holy Scriptures and confessed in the church's historic creeds; 2) recognize the authenticity of each other's baptism and eucharist and extend sacramental hospitality to each other's members; 3) recognize the validity of their respective ministries; 4) recognize the full interchangeability and reciprocity of all ordained ministers in each of the churches. That relationship commits the churches to working together as partners in mission toward fuller visible unity. A relationship of full communion does not mean there are no differences or distinctions between the churches but does mean that these differences are not church dividing.
This is a wonderful ecumenical achievement. It is understandable that the first church in America with which our church enters into a relationship of full communion is the ELCA. The biggest obstacle to full communion is usually a different understanding of ordained ministry, particularly the office of bishop. While both the ELCA and the UMC have bishops, in neither church is the episcopacy a third order of ministry. Nor does either church subscribe to a theory of apostolic succession by which it is believed that ordination is valid only when it is administered by persons who have received the laying on of hands by bishops ordained in historic succession from the apostles. (Like the Orthodox Church and other Protestants, our two churches affirm that real apostolic succession consists of faithfully handing on the faith of the apostles from generation to generation in orthodox preaching and teaching. Moreover, the actual historical basis of the claims of Catholics and Anglicans about the apostolic succession of bishops cannot be verified historically, even as it is true that the episcopal form of church government is the traditional and most universal form of ministry which developed in the history of the church and which developed early in its history.)
There are differences in our theological traditions and emphases. Most of the differences are focused around the doctrine of sanctification and its relationship to the doctrine of justification. In order to better understand how Lutherans and United Methodists have come to understand and accept one another's faith and to respect our different emphases, see Confessing One Faith Together: Study and Discussion Guide at www.gccuic-umc.org.
Even though our churches are now in full communion with each other, there are still significant differences between us, and these differences will be respected by both churches. For example, any Lutheran clergyperson who serves in a United Methodist congregation will be required to abide by our Discipline while he or she serves in a United Methodist congregation.
The full impact of the two churches being in full communion will be felt differently in various regions of the country. Where there is a large population of Lutherans living in close proximity to United Methodists, this new relationship will have the most impact. For many in the South, where Lutherans have not been as numerous, this new relationship between our churches is an opportunity to develop a closer relationship with our fellow Lutheran Christians.
In professional ecumenical settings, a distinction is made between full communion and reception. The first is the official recognition of each other's faith, sacraments, and ministry. The second is the business of putting the formal relationship into practice on the local level. For more help with the process of reception, see Building a Relationship UMC-ELCA at www.gccuic-umc.org.
As Lutherans and United Methodists begin to come closer together, we Methodists should tell the story of how our church fathers, Charles and John Wesley, experienced assurance of their justification by grace through faith. Both Charles and John encountered the writings of Martin Luther at the time they had their life-changing experiences. Charles was moved by Luther's Preface to the Epistle to the Galatians, and John was moved by Luther's Preface to the Epistle to the Romans. (Martin Luther published a Preface ,or introduction, to both the Old Testament and the New Testament and certain books within each Testament, and, in his introduction, he emphasized his understanding of the Gospel of Jesus Christ as the good news of our forgiveness and being made right with God by our faith in Christ rather than by our own efforts to be righteous through works of piety or mercy. For example, Charles Wesley heard Luther's words from Luther's Preface to the Galatians, "...Everyone must be justified without merit, without works, without law, but only through Christ.")
The Wesley's would not have experienced the personal assurance of God's love without the proclamation of the Reformer's message of an all-sufficient grace given to each of us personally in the Word of God. As the Wesley's developed their message, they began to emphasize sanctification, or growing in holiness toward perfection in love, and their emphasis on sanctification was different from that of the Lutherans. Nevertheless, Methodism could not have arisen without the contribution of Luther's understanding of the Gospel. The Wesley's personal experience, which launched their ministry that started Methodism, is directly related to Martin Luther's own personal experience in which he discovered the Gospel and launched the Reformation which started Lutheranism.
As the resident bishop of the Florida Area, I need to continue to seek ways to connect us to Bishop Ed Benoway and the Florida-Bahamas Synod of the ELCA. More importantly, each local congregation that ministers in a community with a Lutheran congregation can explore how the two congregations can live more closely together and experience the koinonia of the Holy Spirit through our common faith in Jesus Christ our Lord.