In 1999, the ELCA and the Moravian Church in America established full communion. The Moravians (officially the Unity of the Brethren, or in Latin Unitas Fratrum) may be viewed as the oldest of the Reformation churches. With more than five hundred years of history, the Moravian Church is older than the Lutheran, Presbyterian, or Anglican churches. The denomination became known as the “Moravian” Church in the 18th Century, because most of its members came from the province of Moravia, now in the Czech Republic. The denomination was among the first to publish the Bible in the common language, and the first to print common language hymnals.
Moravians trace their origins to the teachings and influence of the Czech reformer, John Hus (1371-1415). Hus, a Roman Catholic priest and professor at the University of Prague, lived at a time of tumultuous division in the Western Church. He taught that the Gospel should be available in the common language rather than in Latin. He also preached that the communion bread and wine should be freely available to all believers, and objected to abusive practices in the church, including the sale of indulgences. Hus was burned at the stake as a heretic at the Council of Constance. His excommunication was lifted in the 20th Century by Pope John Paul II.
In his day, Martin Luther (1483-1546) was often called the “German Hus.” The Bohemian Brethren, as the first Moravians were called, were in dialogue with Luther and his colleagues. They shared many of the same positions, including the 21 doctrinal articles of the Augsburg Confession of the Lutheran Church. Moravians also use portions of Luther’s Small Catechism in several services of worship. Moravians and Lutherans always were and still are in close relationship in Europe and Africa. Some Moravian groups overseas even belong to the Lutheran World Federation.
Today, the worldwide Moravian Church numbers 740,000 persons. In Canada and the US there are 55,000 Moravians, with many in Northeastern Pennsylvania, North Carolina and the Upper Mid-West.
Moravians have worked for Christian unity throughout their history, and are founding members of the World Council of Churches and the National Council of Churches. Moravians are encouraged to live out their faith through service to those In need. Their mission work has concentrated on the poor and the powerless, and groups largely unreached by other denominations. Today, the Moravian Church continues to have a strong influence in the world mission movement, with active churches in Central America, the Caribbean, southern Africa and India.
The first worship service to celebrate full communion between the ELCA and The Moravian Church in America was held January 27, 2000 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
The Reformed Church, along with the Lutheran Church, traces its history back to the Protestant Reformation of the 16th Century. Twenty years after Martin Luther posted his 95 Thesis in Wittenberg, Germany, a Swiss theologian, John Calvin, further expanded on basic reformation principles. His understandings about the nature of God and God’s relationship with humanity in what came to be known as Reformed theology. Calvin’s reform movement spread to Scotland, where it became the Presbyterian Church, and to the Netherlands, where it became the Dutch Reformed Church.
The Reformed Church in America was founded in 1628 – just 21 years after the American colony at Jamestown was established – by the Dutch who settled in New Amsterdam (now New York City). While Dutch in origin, the Reformed Church in America today includes North America’s ethnic and racial diversity. The church has about 950 congregations in the United States and Canada and a total membership of more than 300,000 adults, youth, and children. The denomination’s missionaries teach, practice medicine, and engage in community development worldwide in countries like Ecuador, Kenya, Japan, and Estonia.
The Reformed Church, along with the Lutheran Church, affirms three creeds that arose in the early church: the Apostle’s Creed, the Athanasian Creed, and the Nicene Creed. In addition, the Reformed Church in America accepts the following three confessional statements as expressions of its basic beliefs:
The Heidelberg Catechism – Formulated during the Reformation, and still regarded as an important teaching tool, this Catechism has had by far the most formative influence on the life of the Reformed Church.
The Belgic Confession – Written in the 16th Century, during a period of strong political ties between Spain and the people of the Low Countries (including modern day Holland), this Confession was intended to persuade Philip II of Spain that Reformed people did not hold heretical views. The primary author of the Confession, Pastor Guido de Bres, hoped to convince the king to stop persecuting the Protestants; he himself became a martyr for his faith in 1567.
The Canons of Dort – Formulated in 1618 to resolve a dispute among Dutch theological professors on the issue of divine sovereignty in the work of salvation.
The Reformed Church in America has a long and fruitful history with ecumenical partners. From grassroots initiatives to worldwide councils, the Reformed have witnessed in word and deed to the unity of the church. The Reformed Church in America is a member of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and is a founding member of the World Council of Churches and the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. The Reformed also express unity by working in partnership with other denominations to publish resources, host training events, and coordinate special programs. The Reformed Church in America’s mission program operates through partnerships with other Christian churches and mission organizations.
The United Church of Christ came into being in 1957 with the union of two Protestant denominations: the Evangelical and Reformed Church and the Congregational Christian Churches. Each of these bodies was, in turn, the result of previous unions of other traditions.
The Congregational Churches – Organized when the Pilgrims of Plymouth Plantation (1620) and the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony (1629) acknowledged their essential unity in the Cambridge Platform of 1648.
The Christian Churches – Sprang up in the late 1700s and early 1800s in reaction to the theological and organizational rigidity of the Methodist, Presbyterian and Baptist churches of the time.
The Evangelical Synod of North America – Traced its beginnings to an association of German Evangelical pastors in Missouri. This association, founded in 1841, reflected the 1817 union of Lutheran and Reformed churches in Germany.
The Reformed Church in the United States – Traced its beginnings to congregations of German settlers in Pennsylvania founded from 1725 on. Later, its ranks were swelled by Reformed immigrants from Switzerland, Hungary and other countries.
Through the years, other groups such as Native-Americans, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Pacific Islanders, Volga Germans, Armenians, and Hispanic-Americans have joined with the four earlier groups. In recent years, Christians from other traditions have found a home in the United Church of Christ. Thus the denomination celebrates and continues a broad variety of traditions in its common life.
The characteristics of the United Church of Christ can be summarized in part by the key words in the names that formed its union: Christian, Reformed, Congregational, and Evangelical.
Christian – By its very name, the United Church of Christ declare itself to be part of the Body of Christ – the Christian church. The denomination is committed to continuing the witness of the early disciples to the reality and power of the crucified and risen Christ.
Reformed – All four predecessor denominations arose from the tradition of the Protestant Reformers. The United Church of Christ affirms the primacy of the scriptures, the doctrine of justification by faith, the priesthood of all believers, and the principle of Christian freedom. Two sacraments are celebrated: Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
Congregational – The basic unit of the United Church of Christ is the congregation. Members of each congregation covenant with one another and with God as empowered by the Holy Spirit. These congregations, in turn, exist in covenantal relationships with one another to form larger structures for more effective work. Associations of churches, conferences, the General Synod and the churchwide “covenanted ministries” of the United Church of Christ are free to act in their particular spheres of responsibility. Yet all live in a covenantal relationship with one another and with local churches to manifest the unity of the body of Christ and carry out God’s mission in the world more effectively.
Evangelical – The primary task of the church is the proclamation of the Gospel (evangelion in Greek). The Gospel is proclaimed by word and deed to individual persons and to society. This proclamation is the heart of daily and Sunday worship.
Working with a perspective that faith can be expressed in many different ways, the United Church of Christ has no formula that is a test of faith. However, historic statements, such as the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Evangelical Catechism, the Augsburg Confession, the Cambridge Platform and the Kansas City Statement of Faith are valued as authentic testimonies of faith.
In essentials unity, in non-essentials diversity, in all things charity. For the United Church of Christ, the unity that Christians seek requires neither an uncritical acceptance of any point of view, nor rigid formulation of doctrine. It does require mutual understanding and agreement as to which aspects of the Christian faith and life are essential. The denomination’s motto – That they may all be one. [John 17:21] – reflects the spirit of unity on which it is based and points toward future efforts to heal the divisions in the body of Christ. The United Church of Christ sees itself as a “uniting church.” as well as a “united church.”
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is one of three Protestant churches from the Reformed tradition that the ELCA established full communion with in 1997 – the other two church bodies being the Reformed Church in America and the United Church of Christ.
The Presbyterian Church, along with the Lutheran Church, traces its history back to the Protestant Reformation of the 16th Century. Twenty years after Martin Luther posted a list of 95 grievances against the medieval Roman Catholic Church on a church door in Wittenberg, Germany, a Swiss theologian, John Calvin, further expanded on basic reformation principles. His understandings about the nature of God and God’s relationship with humanity in what came to be known as Reformed theology. John Knox, a Scotsman who studied with Calvin in Geneva, Switzerland, took Calvin’s teachings back to Scotland. Other Reformed communities developed in England, Holland and France. Here in North America, many Presbyterians trace their ancestry back to Scotland and England.
In its confessions, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) expresses the faith of the Reformed tradition. Central to this tradition is the affirmation of the majesty, holiness, and providence of God who creates, sustains, rules, and redeems the world in the freedom of sovereign righteousness and love. Presbyterians have established a distinctive form of church governance that stresses the active, representational leadership of both ministers and church members. Calvin developed the presbyterian pattern of church government, which vests governing authority primarily in elected laypersons known as elders.
In America, the first presbytery was organized in 1706, the first synod in 1717; the first General Assembly was held in 1789. The Presbyterian church in the United States has split and parts have reunited several times. Currently the largest group is the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), which has its national offices in Louisville, Ky. It was formed in 1983 as a result of reunion between the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. (PCUS), the so-called “southern branch,” and the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (UPCUSA), the so-called “northern branch”– which had separated at the time of the Civil War. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has a membership of 2,587,674 in all 50 states and Puerto Rico. Presently there are 11,260 congregations, 20,940 ordained ministers, and 108,532 elders.
The order of a Sunday worship service in a Presbyterian church generally includes prayer, music, reading from the Bible, and a sermon based upon scripture. The sacraments, a time of personal response, and a sharing of community concerns are also parts of Presbyterian worship. The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) suggests that worship be ordered in terms of five major actions centered in the Word of God – gathering around the Word, proclaiming the Word, responding to the Word, the sealing of the Word, and bearing and following the Word into the world.
According to the “Book of Order” of the Presbyterian Church, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are understood to be sacraments instituted by God and commended by Christ. Sacraments are “signs of the real presence and power of Christ in the Church, symbols of God’s action.” Through the sacraments, “God seals believers in redemption, renews their identity as the people of God, and marks them for service” (Book of Order W-1.3033.2). In the dialogues leading up to full communion, Lutherans and Presbyterians were able to reach agreement that Christ is truly present in the Sacrament of the Altar. One of the goals of full communion is for Lutherans and Reformed Christians to grow together in their understanding of this mystery as they share in this sacrament and cooperate in ministry as the Body of Christ in the world.
The Episcopal Church traces its origins to the Church of England and the 16th Century English Reformation. As with the Lutheran reformation movement on the European continent, the English reformation movement evolved and took shape over time. Under the leadership of Archbishop Thomas Cramner (1489-1556) and others, many of the basic reformation principles espoused by Martin Luther and John Calvin, a Swiss theologian, were incorporated into the life and doctrine of the Church of England. In fact, the primary doctrinal statement of the English Reformation, the Thirty-Nine Articles, draws significantly from the 28 articles of the Lutheran Augsburg Confession.
Church of England congregations were established in North America by the colonists. After the American Revolution, the Episcopal Church became an independent, national church, while remaining a part of the Anglican Communion of churches. (“Anglican” is an adjective meaning “English.”) Similar to the Lutheran World Federation, the Anglican Communion is an association of churches which share an historical bond and common understanding of Christianity. Even though the Anglican Communion has English-European roots, today the majority of Anglicans around the globe are persons of color.
Many of the early Lutheran immigrants to the United States developed cordial relationships with Episcopalians. Indeed, some of the oldest Lutheran congregations on the East Coast—in Delaware and Pennsylvania—actually belong to the Episcopal Church, having transferred in shortly after they discontinued the use of Swedish in favor of English.
For Episcopalians, the Holy Scriptures contain everything necessary for Christian belief. The two sacraments instituted by Jesus, Holy Baptism and Holy Communion, are central to Christian life. Baptism breaks the hold of sin on human life and makes the individual a part of Christ’s church. Holy Communion renews the relationship with God and the church that was given in Baptism. The Episcopal Church’s worship is based on the Book of Common Prayer. For Episcopalians, many traditions developed by Christians throughout the ages are viewed as useful ways of interpreting Scripture and enriching the life of the church.
Membership in the Episcopal Church in the United States is more than 2.5 million. There are more than 7,400 congregations across the country. Worldwide, the Anglican Communion has 70 million members and is growing. Episcopalians have a strong commitment to ecumenism, both in joint mission efforts and in dialogue. The Episcopal Church maintains a number of social agencies, hospitals and schools. The church is also very active in dealing with both domestic and foreign crises of hunger, refugee resettlement and poverty.
On August 20, 2009, the Churchwide Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) adopted a full communion agreement with the United Methodist Church. In 2008, the UMC General Conference adopted the same agreement. The two churches began formel theological dialogues together in 1977, which led to declarations of “Interim Eucharistic Sharing” in 2005. The UMC has 8 million members.