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Four Churches Unite Under One Steeple

Lutheran pact with other Protestants marks progress and setback for Christian unity

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For more than three decades the dream of "ecumenism" - described as the "spirit of Christ calling the churches together" - has burned brightly for America's denominational leaders.

Yet many church members have often begged their leaders just as ardently not to make basic changes to long-held beliefs and traditions without first "trying the spirits."

For American churches, those two impulses came to a dramatic head this week - as a grand plan endorsed by Lutheran officials to unite five Protestant churches ran up against a plucky group of pastors and lay Lutherans from the upper Midwest.

In an emotional meeting that may be the Protestant event of the decade, the largest Lutheran church in the US did vote to unite with three major denominations in a close relationship called "full communion." The four churches, totaling 9 million members, will now share clergy and sacred practices, along with social outreach and resources. The reconciliation reverses separate traditions that date back 450 years to the Reformation.

Remaining divide

But in a move that stunned Lutheran leaders, the church's general assembly also narrowly rejected a formal link with the Episcopal Church. The Episcopal pact, the most controversial of the two proposals and the one watched most closely by the Protestant world, would have required Lutherans to accept a new layer of bishops and ceremony. It also would have opened an ecumenical path toward the Roman Catholic side of Christianity - something now blocked, at least for the time being.

"We've taken a historic step to heal a breach of the Reformation between Lutherans and Calvinists," says presiding Bishop George Anderson. "We still need to work on the Anglican side."


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