Three churches of the Reformed tradition and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) set aside centuries of disagreement and sealed a historic agreement for "full communion" in a colorful worship service October 4 in Chicago.
A procession led by the heads of the four churches moved down the aisle of Rockefeller Chapel at the University of Chicago to a baptismal font in the chancel where they reaffirmed their baptismal vows.
"We gather to repent of the ways we have condemned each other, to recognize our mutual baptism, and to encourage the sharing of the Lord's Supper among our members," said Presiding Bishop H. George Anderson of the ELCA.
"We gather to pledge ourselves to live under the Gospel in mutual affirmation and admonition that respect and love for each other may grow," added the Rev. Paul Sherry, president of the United Church of Christ.
Joined by Stated Clerk Clifton Kirkpatrick of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and General Secretary Wesley Granberg-Michaelson of the Reformed Church in America, the procession moved together to the altar.
"It was a very powerful, visual image," said the Rev. Cynthia Campbell, president of the PCUSA's McCormick Seminary in Chicago, and a signal that the churches are ready to "put behind us the divisions that kept us apart for so long."
As celebrant for the service, Campbell proclaimed to the 1500 people in the congregation, "Hear the good news. Anyone who is in Christ is a new creation. The old life is gone, a new life has begun. You are forgiven. Be at peace."
Drinking from the same cup
After decades of official dialogue, the four churches voted in the summer of 1997 for a Formula of Agreement that moves them into a new relationship, maintaining individual traditions and identities but committing them to mutual recognition, common mission and interchangeability of clergy.
"It is God who opened the eyes of these Reformed and Lutheran theologians to see that the disagreements that divided were in fact differences that need not divide," said the Rev. James Kenneth Echols, president of the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago, in his sermon.
"It was God who opened their eyes to see that we could live more closely together in mutual affirmation and admonition, drinking from the same cup of salvation in witness to the one who shed his blood for us all," he said.
"Part of the meaning of this day has to do with the historical blindness of our two traditions to one another," Echols said, "blinded to our essential unity in the faith-and this has kept us apart." Yet he said that the day almost meant "celebrating the power of God to open eyes…."
The liturgy was a blend of elements from Lutheran and Reformed traditions, as well as some new material commissioned especially for the event. The Prayers of the People used a variety of languages to demonstrate the diversity represented by the churches.
"We are taking the first steps of our really becoming the body of Christ as it was envisioned nearly 2,000 years ago," said Dr. Addie Butler of Philadelphia, who served as the assisting minister at the service. "It is an important step, an early step, and much work has been done-but there is still a lot more work to do."
Anderson of the ELCA told a banquet the night before the service that he thought it was inconceivable that the churches could move beyond their differences in his lifetime. As a professor of church history he lectured about the splinters of the Reformation era, describing them as different branches of the same tree. "But a miracle happened," he said. Using the image from Revelations, he described a tree of life whose leaves are used for the healing of the nations. "We're not quite grafted yet, but we're growing together."
Dr. Konrad Raiser, general secretary of the World Council of Churches, said that the new relationship goes beyond the healing of four streams, calling the agreement a "balm for the healing of the body of Christ." He told the audience that he had been touched in his own life by the Lutheran and Reformed traditions since he was baptized in "a very traditional, Lutheran way, confirmed in the United church, married in the Reformed church in Switzerland, and ordained in the Evangelical Church of Germany," which includes both Lutheran and Reformed partners. "I knew all along you were related. And I feel satisfaction saying you finally belong to an extended family," he said.
Granberg-Michaelson picked up on the image and said that the churches all share in the common waters of baptism "but more than that, we are part of what is flowing together into the future, into that one river of life."
Sherry agreed, sharing an encounter with an African pastor and church leader who, when he heard about the agreement, said that "we are finally catching up with God." Sherry added, "Now we can really move into the future together. If God be for us, who dare stand against us."
"I feel like the best man at a wedding," said an elated Dr. Ishmael Noko, general secretary of the Lutheran World Federation, calling the celebration a "healing time."
The Episcopal Church, however, was not invited to this wedding-at least, not yet, since the ELCA narrowly turned down a similar agreement with the Episcopalians. The Rev. David Perry, the church's ecumenical officer, joined the ecumenical guests at the service and said afterwards that "any step forward is a step for all of us. But I look forward to the day when we can take this step together."
The ELCA will present a revised agreement to its Churchwide Assembly next year and Perry is convinced that the two churches will agree on a statement that "would quicken excitement for the whole ecumenical endeavor."
--James Solheim is the Episcopal Church's director of news and information.