In 1997 and again in 1999 the Churchwide Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America approved important ecumenical agreements. These agreements established a new relationship called "full communion" between the ELCA and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Reformed Church in America, and the United Church of Christ in 1997, and between the ELCA and the Moravian Church in America in 1999. In 1999 the ELCA also acted to approve a relationship of "full communion" with the Episcopal Church.
In its policy statement Ecumenism: The Vision of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which was adopted by the Churchwide Assembly in 1991, the ELCA described "full communion" this way:
For the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the characteristics of full communion are theological and missiological implications of the Gospel that allow variety and flexibility. These characteristics stress that the church act ecumenically for the sake of the world, not for itself alone. They will include at least the following, some of which exist at earlier stages:
- a common confession 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 church in full communion, subject only but always to the disciplinary regulation of the 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.
For worship, this new relationship of "full communion" means that although the participating churches remain individual denominations (they are not merged into one church body), they welcome individuals who are members of the other churches participating in this new relationship to worship as if they were members of that church and encourage them to receive the sacraments in their celebrations. It also means that in this new relationship, the clergy of the participating churches may be invited to serve in the other churches (according to the disciplinary regulation of the church in which they are invited to serve).
The guidelines provided for the churches counsel:
Among the best ways to express the relationship of full communion is for congregations to share the form of worship they use by inviting the participation of congregations of the other church bodies to worship with them on a regular basis.
The long process of church-to-church conversation and dialogue that preceded the approval of these agreements has revealed a large body of worship practices, texts, and music, that are held in common by the participating church bodies. Full communion means valuing what is held in common as well as coming to appreciate what is distinctive about the worship of the congregations of these churches and their members.
As a part of the "common decision making on critical common issues of faith and life" identified in number 5 above, the ELCA has entered into consultation on worship with these full communion partner churches. The result of these consultations is a set of guidelines related to worship with the Reformed churches and another set of similar guidelines with the Moravians. Among the remarkable discoveries is a shared outline (ordo) for the liturgy of Holy Communion that is held in common by these full "communion churches":
(The elements printed in bold type are essential to the liturgical tradition of all the full communion partner churches. The elements printed in italic type, also found in these churches, may help provide a fuller and richer experience of worship for all.)
Kyrie (Lord, have mercy)
Hymn of Praise
Prayer for Illumination
Historic Creed (Apostles’ or Nicene)
Greeting of Peace
Presentation of the Gifts
Distribution of Communion
Canticle or Hymn
Does full communion mean that Lutherans will have to worship exactly as Presbyterians, Reformed, United Church of Christ, Moravian, or Episcopal churches do? No. All the agreements as adopted make that clear. The agreements cite article 7 of the Augsburg Confession: "For the true unity of the church it is enough to agree concerning the teaching of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments."
What will happen in the future? Who can say? Full communion commits the churches involved to consult seriously with one another on matters important to their life and mission. Worship falls into that category. As we live together in full communion, we may find ways in which to share more in common. We may also find ways in which to appreciate, value, and share our distinctiveness as Lutherans and the contribution it may make to our full communion partners.