What’s Up With Full Communion?

If you ask most United Methodists what “full communion” was… and they would say, “well, Scott, that is probably when the pastor gets real generous with the bread and grape juice!”  Well, I’ve had that kind of full communion, but United Methodists today should be talking about another kind of full communion.  You see, The United Methodist and Evangelical Lutheran Church in America have just entered into a new Full Communion agreement after more than 39 years of dialogue (when it is an ecumenical discussion of unity between two churches we call this a bi-lateral).

The General Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns of the United Methodist Church has been engaged in this work.  So often people ask me when I return home from board meetings of the GCCUIC, “What do these national agencies do for my local church?  How does that work affect me?”  The same question could be leveled at this work.  What does full communion mean and what does it mean for our churches?

Many United Methodist Churches already work with Lutheran (and other churches) in their area.  They may even have exchanged communion with pastors blessing the elements in one another’s churches.  Full communion certainly means that we should be engaging in eucharistic sharing (communion services) together, sure, but FULL COMMUNION means sooo much more.

Let’s step back a bit.  What does it mean for the church to be the body of Jesus Christ?  Well, which church?  The catholic church sees itself as THE church universal and then there is the Eastern Orthodox and many protestant churches…  Which church is the body of Jesus Christ?  I’d like to say that Christians are one church regardless of denomination or sect, but let’s be honest, we sometimes can’t sit in the same room hardly (at least this has been the case at times).  So there are many churches, yet one body of christ that, I would like to believe, encompasses and is lived out by all of the Christian churches.

Certain churches have taken steps towards unity.  Not organizational unity, at least necessarily, but theological unity.  In the case of the ELCA and UMC, the churches have discussed theology and practice and determined there are no longer any major theological understandings that should keep them apart.

The pastors of our churches may be appointed to churches of the other denomination (so long as they meet denominational standards such as taking a polity class or conforming to regulations on WHO can be a pastor in the denomination)  In other words, a gay Lutheran pastor, unfortunately, can not be appointed to a United Methodist Church.  In small communities, then, where a lutheran and united methodist church would wish to combine and share a pastor they may do so more easily.

Some of you may say, “we’ve been doing these things for years.  It sounds like the national church is just catching up to what we’re already doin’.”  This is a fair challenge, but we can rejoice that the churches have come to this agreement and that we growing in unity.  Local churches could choose to ignore this….or we can take advantage of the moment and take steps to get to know our local Lutheran sisters and brothers in Christ.


The board of the General Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns is meeting yet again this week.  I’ve been a member of the board for five years now and really enjoy the work.

I got into New York on Tuesday evening and after a terrifying van ride to 6th Avenue and 26th in Manhattan, I got settled into my hotel and went out for pizza with a friend.  We went to “Waldy’s Wood Fired Pizza” which was great.  Cindy, Luke and I met for breakfast.  We walked up to the 2nd Ave Kosher Deli for breakfast and I had some amazing french toast.  Enough about food, though.  When my beautiful girlfriend was in New York last week with her family  I called the second night of her trip to ask her about the trip.  She began listing all of the restaurants she had been to and food she had eaten.  I said, “Haven’t you done anything besides eat?”  I guess I had just forgotten how exceptional is the restaurant selection and food variety.

This is only my third trip to NYC so there is a newness to my experience and I am soaking in the magnificence of this city.  Bishop Park, in his welcoming remarks, spoke of his 10 seconds of welcome to the pope.  He said that he had many things with which he might have loved engaging the pope such as challenging him on ordination of women and yet when he was before the pope with only seconds to greet him, he said, “The people of New York have welcomed you and when New York welcomes you, the world welcomes you.”  I really like this.  It speaks to how crazy diverse this city is.  Every where I look I see not just an American city, but multiple cultures on each city block.  Next to the Kosher Deli there was a middle eastern store with an Arabic sign. Muslims and Jews side-by-side with other cultural stores spanning the block.  Other cities, like Chicago, have these elements but there really is an intangible quality about New York which makes it remarkable.

Enough rambling for now.

Title Photo: At the “God box” 475 Riverside Drive in New York City.  By Scott Carnes, 2009