Service sets tone for shared ministry between Florida Lutherans, United Methodists

July 21, 2006    News media contact: Tita Parham* 
800-282-8011  
tparham@flumc.org    Orlando {0519}

An e-Review Feature
By Pam Garrison**

LAKELAND — A special combined communion service last May marked the first steps for Florida United Methodists and Lutherans to be in ministry together. Photo by Pam Garrison, Photo #06-403.

LAKELAND — More than 120 Lutherans and United Methodists gathered for worship and communion during a special Ascension Day service late last May at First United Methodist Church of Lakeland. 

It was the first such gathering in Central Florida since the top leaders of each denomination approved an agreement for “interim Eucharistic sharing” almost a year ago.

For decades United Methodists and Lutherans have been in dialogue on common issues of the Christian faith, seeking opportunities to work together as an authentic example of a unified church. The interim agreement provides a context for the two church bodies to celebrate joint services of communion and explore new possibilities for shared ministry.

The organizers of the service hoped to “showcase the service and generate interest” in the interim agreement, according to the Rev. Russell Meyer, executive director of the Florida Council of Churches and an ordained Lutheran minister. Meyer said the agreement offers a framework for churches to study and worship together, and, eventually, engage in a much closer relationship of full communion. Denominational leaders hope this will ultimately lead to more effective ministry together.

“Confessing Our Faith Together: A Study and Discussion Guide” is a resource created specifically to promote conversation between United Methodist and Lutheran congregations. Members from both denominations are being encouraged to participate in the five-week study together and respond to their church leadership. The goal is to share enough positive responses at the 2007 Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) Churchwide Assembly and 2008 General Conference of The United Methodist Church to recommend an agreement for sharing full communion between the denominations.

Ken Mahler was among several members from Grace Lutheran Church in Lakeland who attended the service and expressed support and excitement for the new relationship between the churches.

“I’ve been communing with Methodists for decades,” Mahler said, adding he and his wife, Rhoda, are retired Lutheran missionaries living in Lakeland. “When we first went to Panama as missionaries 35 years ago it was Methodists who greeted us as we arrived. They were there before us and welcomed us.”   

LAKELAND — Florida United Methodists and Lutherans participated in leading the joint Ascension Day service. Photo by Pam Garrison, Photo #06-404. Web photo only.

First United Methodist and Grace Lutheran churches sponsored and organized the service. It began with a formal procession that included banners, combined choirs, officiating clergy from both churches and singing of “A Hymn of Glory Let us Sing.” The Rev. Robert Gibbs, senior pastor at First United Methodist Church, welcomed worshippers, and Bishop Edward Benoway of the Florida-Bahama Synod of the ELCA presided. Following the guidelines of the interim agreement, the celebrant’s liturgy was used, and the communion elements were provided by First United Methodist Church. Bishop Timothy Whitaker of the Florida Conference of The United Methodist Church delivered the message. Clergy and lay liturgists also participated.

Sue and Cleve Hillman, active members at Grace Lutheran Church, said the service was “exciting for everyone.” The Hillmans began their marriage 28 years ago in a United Methodist church and, through twists of circumstances and geography, ended up in the Lutheran church. As they reflected on the commonalities between the two denominations they said they have “come full circle” and the service was like a homecoming.

It is the focus on common beliefs and shared ministry leaders in both denominations hope to encourage and promote. “The church was one body for a thousand years before we began doing our own thing,” Whitaker said. “I think sometimes we have accommodated division. I think that is theologically irresponsible.” 

In his message on Christ’s ascension, Whitaker stressed the “church is the one place where we can make Christ — a body — the visible church, witness to the world, visible to the world … Christ’s presence in the world.”

Suggestions for planning joint liturgies as well as the study and discussion guide can be found online at  http://www.gccuic-umc.org/web/webpdf/confessing-faith-f_color_2.pdf

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This article relates to Florida Conference Archives and the 2006 Florida Annual Conference Event.

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Garrison is a communications coordinator for Florida United Methodist Communications and a contributor to e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.


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