Lutherans are part of a reforming movement within the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, therefore, has seen ecumenical dialogue as an essential part of its mission to the church. In recent years, the ELCA has entered into cooperative “full communion” agreements with several other Christian communions, including:
- the Moravian Church
- The Episcopal Church
- the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
- the Reformed Church in America
- the United Church of Christ
- the United Methodist Church
The ELCA has an ongoing dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church, and in 1999, representatives of the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church signed the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. This represented a historic consensus on key issues of faith and called for further dialogue and study together.
For the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the characteristics of full communion stress that the church act ecumenically for the sake of the world, not for itself alone. They include at least the following, some of which exist at earlier stages:
- a common confessing of the Christian faith;
- a mutual recognition of Baptism and a sharing of the Lord’s Supper, allowing for joint worship and an exchangeability of members;
- a mutual recognition and availability of ordained ministers to the service of all members of churches in full communion, subject only but always to the disciplinary regulations of other churches;
- a common commitment to evangelism, witness, and service;
- a means of common decision making on critical common issues of faith and life;
- a mutual lifting of any condemnations that exist between churches
We hold this definition and description of full communion to be consistent with Article VII of the Augsburg Confession, which says, “For the true unity of the church it is enough to agree concerning the teaching of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments.” Agreement in the Gospel can be reached and stated without adopting Lutheran confessional formulations as such. It allows for flexible, situation-oriented decisions about order and decision making structures. It does not demand organic union, though it does not rule it out. This definition is also in agreement with the understanding of unity adopted by the Seventh Assembly of the Lutheran World Federation in 1984, “The Unity We Seek” (quoted under the Lutheran World Federation section of this statement). The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America seeks to be faithful to its scriptural and confessional foundations. As a confessional church that is evangelical, catholic and ecumenical, this church will pursue the goal of full communion and will rejoice in all movement toward that goal.
Full Communion has implications for life in the parish:
- Members are transferred freely among full communion churches in the same manner as within their respective communions, a letter of transfer suffices;
- Members may become associate members of ELCA congregations while still having their principal membership in a full communion congregation;
- Baptism is fully recognized and the Eucharist freely shared;
- Full Communion clergy may preach and preside in Lutheran congregations; concelebration is neither necessary nor permitted, not to mention questionable on the basis of a Lutheran confessional understanding, since concelebration seems to place the focus on the presider rather than the promises of Christ;
- Full communion congregations, in consultation with their bishops, may share clergy, enter into covenantal relationships, and even consolidate with congregations from different communions held together in a single parish.
- Clergy in full communion may preside and preach as supplies in each others congregations when a member of their own communion’s clergy is unavailable.
- Lay rostered ministers, including synodically authorized lay worship leaders, are not interchangeable, but are understood to be ministers in their own communion rather than the church catholic.
Implications of Interim Eucharistic Sharing:
- Clergy are not interchangeable. Therefore, when sharing the Eucharist, one congregation is the host and the other is the invited guest.
- The host congregation’s pastor presides at the Eucharist, and the host’s liturgy is used. It is inappropriate to combine elements of the liturgies from the different communions.
- The pastor of the invited congregation preaches.
- Members of both congregations are invited to the table.
- The bishops of both communions are to be informed prior to finalizing plans and permission sought.