A landmark agreement that could end nearly 500 years of rivalry between two of Christendom's largest denominations is due to come before Lutheran leaders this weekend in Philadelphia. The outcome could help redefine Christianity for the 21st century.
If approved, the Concordat of Agreement between the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Episcopal Church, which already has approved it, could allow everything from joint ordination of priests to the sharing of Sunday school teachers.
Perhaps more important, the Lutheran assembly may quell centuries of mistrust by preparing to knock down some even taller walls: The delegates are expected to lift condemnations of the Roman Catholic Church that split Christendom in the 16th century and gave rise to the Reformation.
"The ecumenical movement has gone through a long winter," said Bishop Ralph Kemski, head of the Lutheran bishops' ecumenical committee. "But then springtime comes and marvelous things happen."
The Lutheran delegates, who represent 5.2 million members, are considering a spiritual partnership known as "full communion," which stops short of a full merger with the other denominations but goes beyond typical church alliances. By midweek, depending on how a series of votes go, the Lutherans could be in full communion not only with the Episcopalians but also with 4.6 million members of the Reformed Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the United Church of Christ.
There is a worldwide "bursting forth of ecumenical fervor," said Richard Jeske, a Lutheran pastor in San Jose, Calif., and co-chairman of the joint committee that prepared the final draft of the Concordat. "I think the breaches of the Reformation period are going to be healed in the next generation."
Not since the heady days that followed the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s have so many doors of possibility been opened.
"If we have one shepherd we should be one flock," said the Rev. Elizabeth Platts, associate pastor at Lutheran Church of the Resurrection in Augusta. "That does not mean that this is a merger and we all need to be the same denomination, but each of us has wonderful traditions that we bring."
The Rev. Platts, raised Episcopalian, transferred to the Lutheran church when her parents divorced, she said. "I now truly feel that it is one Lord, one church."
Differences that have historically divided the church - interpretations of the Eucharist, for example - are now seen as complementary and mutually enriching.
The Rev. Charles A. Nelson, pastor of Ascension Lutheran Church in Augusta, said, "I am fully supportive of the movement to allow people in two of the major wings of Christian faith - the Episcopalian and the Lutheran - to be able to come together in worship, in ministry, in some cases, and also to be able to have a more vigorous witness."
The Vatican-Lutheran agreement would begin moving the churches past their historic impasse over the understanding of God's role in human salvation.
Although both traditions maintain that faith plays a role, Luther criticized the Catholic Church for what he considered its emphasis on good works. Now an international committee of scholars from both churches has written a declaration that says salvation rests in God's hands alone.
This week's Philadelphia assembly is the first Lutheran body to consider the international declaration. The Vatican hasn't taken an official position.
Staff Writer Virginia Norton contributed to this article.