Two parallel histories converged in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, on January 27, when the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and Moravian Church in America celebrated their new agreement, "Following Our Shepherd to Full Communion."
After six years of dialogue and study, two Moravian provinces passed the agreement in 1998 followed by the ELCA Churchwide Assembly in August 1999.
The ELCA voted at the same assembly to enter into full communion with the Episcopal Church.
Full communion is not a plan to merge but it does commit the churches to the possibility of new ways to share their mission work locally and internationally and to procedures whereby clergy in one church body, under certain circumstances, may serve as pastors in the other church body.
The Rev. H. George Anderson, presiding bishop of the ELCA, said Lutheran history and Moravian history have been on "parallel tracks" in the United States since colonial times. "We celebrate a reunion of sorts," he told a luncheon gathering at Salem College.
The Rev. Hans-Beat Motel, chair of the Unity Board, the governing body of the world's 19 Moravian Provinces, came from Germany to participate in the historic occasion. He said the "full communion" agreement reached in the United States will reverberate internationally.
"The Moravian Church around the world is dealing with its 'essentials,'" said Motel. "Perhaps we can use 'Following Our Shepherd to Full Communion' as a starting point for our theological studies." The significance of such study is illustrated in the motto of the Moravian Church: "In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, freedom; and in all things, love."
God knows the future
The day began with tours of Old Salem in the historic section of Winston-Salem surrounding Salem College. Moravians settled in the area in the late 1700s and founded Salem, which joined Winston in 1913 to form Winston-Salem.
The Rev. Leonard H. Bolick, bishop of the ELCA's North Carolina Synod, delivered a sermon during a late afternoon Moravian "lovefeast" at Home Church. He identified the new Lutheran-Moravian relationship with a marriage proposal he overheard recently in a restaurant. "What a surprise!" was the young woman's first response to the proposal, said Bolick. "Where's the ring?" was the next. "I need a symbol of our love."
Lutherans and Moravians have enjoyed a long relationship as Christian friends, and yet full communion comes as surprise, said Bolick. The agreement is a symbol of the love Lutherans and Moravians share in Jesus Christ. "Where will we go on our honeymoon?" the young woman asked, according to Bolick. "We can decide that together," was the answer. "The couple left ... their relationship changed forever," said Bolick. "We don't know the future; God knows the future."
The lovefeast combined music, prayer and Scripture readings with the sharing of "a simple meal." Servers or "dieners" gave each person in the congregation a roll made of sweet bread and a cup of coffee, specially brewed with cream and sugar, as a sign of fellowship. The Rev. Gerald R. Harris, pastor of Home Church, called the lovefeast "a reminder of the social nature of the gospel and of the social being of Jesus Christ."
Lutherans and Moravians completed the celebration with the Lord's Supper. Joint worship and the sharing of the sacraments are part of the full communion agreement. The Rev. Lane A. Sapp, pastor of Calvary Moravian Church, Winston-Salem, presided during the service at Augsburg Lutheran Church, Winston-Salem.
Strengthening one another
The leaders of the ELCA and the two Moravian provinces verbalized the terms of the full communion agreement while opening the worship service. "We gather to recognize in one another the one, holy, catholic and apostolic faith as it is expressed in Scriptures and confessed in the Church's historic creeds," said the Rev. R. Burke Johnson of Bethlehem, president of the Provincial Elders' Conference of the Moravian Church, Northern Province.
"We gather to recognize each other as churches in which the gospel is rightly preached and the sacraments are rightly administered according to the Word of God," said Anderson. "We gather to recognize our mutual ministry and to claim as valid the proclamation of the Word and the celebration of the sacraments by our ordained ministers."
"We gather to strengthen one another in head and heart, to recognize our mutual Baptism, and to encourage the sharing of the Lord's Supper among our members," said the Rev. Robert E. Sawyer of Winston-Salem, president of the Provincial Elders' Conference of the Moravian Church, Southern Province. "We gather to pledge ourselves to live under the gospel in mutual affirmation and admonition, that respect and love for each other may grow."
Lutheran and Moravian congregations across the United States may be planning similar worship celebrations based on "Guidelines and Worship Resources for the Celebration of Full Communion: Lutheran-Moravian" used for the January 27 service.
The Moravian Church--or Unitas Fratrum--was organized in Europe in 1457 and is considered the oldest of the Reformation churches. It traces its origin to the teachings of the Czech reformer, John Hus, who pre-dated the German reformer, Martin Luther, by about a century.
The Southern Province of the Moravian Church is based in Winston-Salem. The province includes about 25,000 Moravians with congregations in three states in the southeastern United States. The Northern Province includes about 30,000 Moravians in 14 states, the District of Columbia, and two provinces of Canada.
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---Frank Imhoff is associate director for News and Information for the ELCA.