This week the largest Lutheran denomination in America met in their Churchwide Assembly. Among the various resolutions voted upon, the ELCA voted to enter into full communion with the the United Methodist Church, the largest Methodist denomination in America.
The delegates of the 4.7 million member denomination voted to enter into full communion on August 20 by a margin of 958 to 51. They reportedly celebrated the historic occasion by singing Charles Wesley's O for a Thousand Tongues. After the vote was announced, Lutheran Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson hugged the president of the United Methodist Council of Bishops, Bishop Gregory Palmer.
Last year, the General Conference of the United Methodist Church voted overwhelmingly to approve full communion by a margin of 864 to 19.
United Methodists, like all in the Wesleyan/Methodist tradition, have always practiced open communion. Additionally, they have "acted as though" they have been in full communion with not only the Pan-Methodist denominations (viz., the AME, AMEZ, and CME churches), but also the denominations of the World Methodist Council. That is to say, they have had joint Eucharistic services wherein UM & other Wesleyan/Methodists have been involved and presided (e.g., at the World Methodist Conferences and other WMC related events).
Nevertheless, this is the very first "official" full communion agreement for the UMC. (It does make one wonder if they ought not to have declared themselves in full communion with the WMC denominations, first. Such a declaration would have simply stated what their practice has already indicated, though, of course, such a declaration would still fall short of the kind of mutual, written agreement now entered into between the UMC & the ELCA. - And, of course, such discussion is really moot!)
What this new agreement means is that each denomination now officially recognizes the other as a partner in the Christian faith, recognizes the authenticity of each others baptism and Eucharist, recognizes the validity of each others orders of ministry (e.g., deacons & elders), and commits each to working together toward greater unity. (The UMNS article can be viewed here.)
Such an agreement would, indeed, be worth celebrating. - However, actions taken by the ELCA in their Churchwide Assembly may raise some issues concerning the agreement.
It seems that the ELCA delegation also voted to not only allow the blessing of same-sex unions, but also to open holy orders to partnered gay and lesbian Lutherans. Prior to this Assembly, the Lutheran policy concerning the ordination of those who identified as gay or lesbian was to only ordain them if they remained celebrate. That has now changed. (See ELCA News article, here.)
The question that this raises is how will the UMC deal with Lutheran ministers who are in partnered same-sex relationships. On the one hand, full communion indicates the recognition of the validity of ELCA orders. On the other hand, despite all of the attempts to change the UMC position, the United Methodists continue to maintain that the "practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching," and therefore, "self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church" (Discipline, 2004, par. 304.3). - Will there be a backlash at the next General Conference? Will there be a backlash prior to the next G.C.? Or, will this situation provide momentum for those in the UMC who want to see their own policy change?
For many, the further actions of the Churchwide Assembly of the ELCA have put a large damper on what would otherwise be a glorious celebration.
Beyond the question of UMC/ELCA relations is the question of what will become of the many, many ELCA Lutherans who mourn the decision of their Churchwide Council? Will they remain and work for renewal within their beloved denomination?
All of the readers of this blog are asked to pray for all of our Christian sisters and brothers within the UMC and the ELCA who have been or will be affected by the momentous decisions of this week's Assembly.