What Happens Now? Ecumenical Agreements, Ecumenical Challenges

1] In less than two decades, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America made significant ecumenical advances and agreements with other Christian churches. Ranging from full communion agreements to bilateral dialogue statements, including the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ), we have seen and celebrated some of the fulfillment envisioned by our Vision for Ecumenism adopted by the 1991 ELCA Assembly.

[2] After ten years of approved agreements and the significant JDDJ, where are we ecumenically and what happens now? In many respects, tangible results can be seen in ministry between the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and our full communion partners. Yet, we have not touched the depth of mission and ministry possibilities that full communion could provide. While we will celebrate the 10th Anniversary of the JDDJ this year, it has not had the prominence in places of learning, in our churches, and in grassroots ecumenical settings that it deserves.

Full Communion Agreements

[3] If you are a member in a congregation served by an ordained pastor from one of our full communion churches, or if you are a full communion partner congregation served by an ELCA pastor, you could affirm what our agreement can mean on the local level. If you are a part of a shared ministry in a full communion church, you could share what a difference full communion has meant to you. From congregational ministry to campus ministry, from global mission training to planting new congregations together, from local to national social services (disaster relief, advocacy, lay leadership, youth formation), full communion agreements are making a difference.

[4] Despite advances, when local congregations, synods/dioceses/conferences look at local mission, do they think ecumenically? With financial and membership resource challenges, middle judicatories and local congregations are facing similar conditions. There should be a more aggressive consideration of ecumenical shared ministries, shared mission opportunities, and mutual planning. Thinking ecumenically should be something that we do regularly, rather than only addressing conditions that have resulted from resource limitations. It should be our thinking as we look at present ministry possibilities and our future mission.

[5] What commitment do we have as a church body to mission planning with full communion partners? And, what commitment do we see from full communion partner churches? There are so many possibilities that include joint education and training endeavors (congregational lay leadership and global leadership) and strategic ministry areas such as evangelical outreach and advocacy/public policy staffing. The congregation is the place where renewal begins. This renewal should be the primary focus on our ecumenical cooperation.

Deeper Reception of Agreements

[6] After decades of dialogue, our full communion agreements were approved. How have they been received in the day-to-day life of our churches? Realizing that we needed more direction, the ELCA Ecumenical and Inter-Religious Relations developed a “reception paper” to guide the reception of our agreements. This approach calls us to move deeper in our full communion sharing and planning. It calls for an assessment of where we are, the development of a three-year mission plan by each of our full communion coordinating committees, new joint ministries, and mutual evaluation. The response has been positive in our coordinating committees. In order to be effective, it needs the commitment of the national staff, middle judicatories, and grassroots/local ministries, if deeper advances will be made.

Challenges and Opportunities

[7] There is an area in our full communion life that must be highlighted. Theological dialogue has not had the attention that full communion agreements should demand. Dialogue moved us into agreements, but continued theological dialogue has not been as deep as it should be. In addition, conversations about issues and concerns facing our churches, society, and world need a more prominent place in our full communion reception and ecumenical dialogues.

[8] Some challenges need to be stated and addressed. Decisions by churchwide assemblies/conventions and differences in moral and ethical discernment have created serious issues among ecumenical partners. How do we have dialogue when the decisions and issues have polarized church bodies? There are divisions within church bodies. There are divisions between church bodies.

[9] Moral and ethical issues are discussed too often outside of recognized dialogues and committees. Comments and judgments are made about one another’s positions and decisions. Even though issues have been before us for years, there has been a failure to convene recognized church-approved dialogue tables to discuss them. Is it too late to convene them? Our answer must be that it is never too late, because unity in Christ is not only His prayer but our ecumenical commitment and vision.

A Place for Sharing

[10] On June 1, 2009, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America convened a meeting with ecumenical partners to share the process and recommendations on human sexuality that would be considered by our ELCA Churchwide Assembly. We began the meeting by asking each of those in attendance (Catholic, Episcopal, Moravian, Presbyterian, Reformed Church in America, United Church of Christ, and United Methodist) to share where human sexuality concerns are in their churches and share comments about the ELCA’s considerations.

[11] The meeting was very revealing, as we learned about each church and heard information that was not known by the group. There was a range that included some churches that had declared a moratorium on discussing human sexuality issues to those who were seeking ways of discussing these issues. There was one church body that had approved the blessing of same gender, committed relationships and the inclusion of ordained persons in committed relationships. There were three churches who were also considering this possibility. There were some who prohibit the blessing of same gender relationships and ordination.

[12] At the end of our day, there was a mutually affirmed observation that we needed deeper and more regular conversation about this issue. Even though we may have missed the opportunity for prior discussion about divisive moral, ethical, and doctrinal issues that our churches are facing, this is something that now must be more than a consideration. It is a necessity.

[13] If we take the approach that our differences will end our ecumenical dialogues, conversations, and cooperation, we will lose the ecumenical vision that has built bridges of understanding, agreements, and ministry. We need to seek mutual commitment to remain at ecumenical dialogue tables to address moral and ethical issues and concerns. We need to be committed to bringing our best theological, biblical, and ecclesiastical understanding to tables of dialogue. We need to listen to the concerns and positions of others. We need to remember Jesus’ prayer for unity among His followers – for the sake of His Church and for the sake of God’s world. This will only be accomplished if each church body calls for officially recognized, appointed, and supported bilateral and multilateral dialogues around the issues and concerns that are challenging our relationships and our hope for unity.

[14] Ecumenism has been described as “being in a winter time.” Retreating from dialogues and difficult issues would keep us in the season of winter. I have always believed that it has been the Holy Spirit who has called us to tables of dialogue so that we may address divisions and seek the unity that is God’s will for our lives, for our relationships, for our churches, and for God’s world.

[15] The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America affirms in our Constitution (4.02.f) that we seek in our faith and life “to manifest the unity given to the people of God by living together in the love of Christ and by joining with other Christians in prayer and action to express and preserve the unity which the Spirit gives.”

[16] May the Holy Spirit provide us the wisdom and guidance to keep this vision of ecumenism and unity always before us, even in days where issues and understanding threaten to polarize us. With the Spirit’s support may we look forward to moving into the renewed springtime that our Lord wills to provide for His Church.