Full communion could soon be established between the members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the United Methodist Church.
Voting members of the ELCA will decide during the churchwide assembly to be held Monday through Aug. 21 at the Minneapolis Convention Center in Minneapolis.
Full communion means the churches will work for visible unity in Jesus Christ, recognize each other's ministries, work together on a variety of ministry initiatives and under certain circumstances, provide for the interchangeability of ordained clergy.
(Mirror photo by Gary M. Baranec) The Rev. Denise Arpino is pastor of Simpson-Temple United Parish where members decided to unite a Lutheran parish and Methodist church about 40 years ago.
According to the ELCA news service, the agreement would allow the two denominations to share worship, particularly communion, study with one another and be involved in mission work together.
The General Conference of the United Methodist Church adopted implementing a resolution in April of 2008 that would establish full communion with the ELCA.
Although nationally, the two denominations have been discussing the issue for more than 30 years, a church in Altoona has been practicing it for almost four decades.
In 1971, Simpson United Methodist Church joined with Temple Lutheran Church when the Lutheran pastor retired. "The physical buildings were separated by about three feet. Temple Lutheran Church didn't have a pastor and the Methodist pastor agreed to come over and lead worship," Pastor Denise Arpino said.
The Methodist pastor served both churches, but the congregations eventually decided to merge. Simpson Methodist's building was razed about 25 years ago because it was beyond repair.
However, the building that housed its Sunday school rooms and offices was left standing and the united congregation continues to use them.
Services are a mixture of both faiths and leadership alternates between Methodist and Lutheran ministers when a pastor moves on or retires.
Arpino was ordained in the Evangelical Lutheran faith, and her predecessor was United Methodist.
Despite some controversy when the church first formed, Simpson-Temple United Parish has functioned quite peaceably, Arpino said. She likes to focus on what the two faiths have in common, not how they differ.
"Both denominations love the Word and seek to follow Jesus' example," Arpino said. "We no longer keep track of who's Methodist or who's Lutheran."
When Patty Shoup of Altoona first came to Simpson-Temple, church records indicated whether parishioners were Lutheran or Methodist. The church no longer keeps track. And those who are baptized at Simpson-Temple are baptized in the parish, not a specific denomination.
"People have come into the life of this church and joined this community of faith and had neither Methodist or Lutheran backgrounds.
They just want to be a part of the Simpson-Temple United Parish because of the ministry that happens here and the faithfulness to the Word of God," Arpino said.
Shoup, who was raised Lutheran, remembers when the churches united.
"In the beginning there were some people upset of course. I think the majority of people now are not opposed to it," she said, adding the services have a "Lutheran flavor" these days because of the Lutheran pastor.
"I don't even consider myself Lutheran so much anymore."
Dave D'elia of Altoona joined Simpson-United Methodist Church when he was 12.
"We don't even think of Methodists or Lutherans. Most of the people I couldn't even identify whether they're Methodist or Lutheran," D'elia said.
As for Holy Communion, the church celebrates weekly.
For United Methodists, Holy Communion symbolizes the Last Supper, but for Lutherans, Communion is the "real presence of Jesus with us," Arpino said.
Shoup and D'elia said they enjoy the full communion and the ELCA churchwide assembly should vote to include Methodists.
Arpino is in the same vein.
"We have been in conversations with other denominations for decades over how we can find unity in the midst of diversity. This conversation is not really new," Arpino said.
Since the late 1990s, the ELCA has been in full communion with the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church USA, United Church of Christ, Reformed Church in America and Moravian Church in America.
However, it will be the first time the United Methodist church has shared full communion with any group outside the Methodist tradition which includes African Methodist Episcopal, African Methodist Episcopal Zion and Christian Methodist Episcopal churches.
"They're not differences that keep us apart. The differences we see which are often outward differences are not anything that divide us, but what unites us is our faith in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ," Bishop Gregory Pile of the Allegheny Synod of the ELCA said. "We understand God comes to us through Christ and the Word and sacraments."
The Evangelical Lutheran Church began talking with United Methodists about joining in full communion in 1977. In the last four years, the two churches moved into an interim full communion relationship.
"This was knowing we would eventually vote for full communion in the years ahead. It was only in an interim fashion that we can share full communion and practice that together," Pile said. "We recognize that we both share a common understanding in the fundamentals of faith."
It also means a Methodist pastor can serve in a Lutheran church and vice versa. The differences in the two faiths stem from their founders: Martin Luther for Lutherans and John and Charles Wesley for Methodists. The structure of the two churches is different, Pile said. He oversees about 127 congregations, while Methodists counterparts could oversee 900 congregations.
Differences in services include hymns and the words and actions of the pastor, but the underlying beliefs of Christianity are the same.
"What we're doing is saying what each of us does is truly of one holy Catholic and apostolic church," Pile said.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church will vote on the issue Thursday.
To celebrate the full communion agreement, a special service will be held Nov. 8 at Simpson-Temple United Parish with Bishop Mark Hanson, presiding bishop of the ELCA, attending.