By the Rev. Tom Prinz, LEIRN Board MemberIn the late 1980’s the accumulation of ecumenical dialogue documents and the well-publicized intention of denominations to seek concrete forms implementing a growing convergence among traditions, long considered hopelessly divided, prompted a Virginia Commonwealth wide Committee of Lutherans, Episcopalians and Roman Catholics to expand their mandate to promote an annual conference on issues of mutual concern, to consider a “covenant” as an instrument of encouragement among and within congregations and parishes. The group realized that for such a document to carry any impact the various judicatories themselves would have to be seen as committed to similar actions at the level of the local church.
The 1990 public signing and release of the then LARC Covenant (Lutheran-Anglican-Roman Catholic) was preceded by a lengthy and comprehensive drafting process.
Judicatory heads were consulted individually and when assent had been achieved a meeting of the bishops was held in the context of the annual judicatory leaders conference held under the auspices of the Virginia Council of Churches. A committee of three drafters was approved, one from each of the traditions, to bring a text back to the bishops in their next annual gathering.
This began a busy process that would involve several drafts. The committee settled on a design of a Preamble, a Declaration and a Call into Covenant made up of a series of 20 actions.
The Preamble section was followed by a carefully worded Declaration by the proposed signatories to do all that could be done within the confines of what ecumenical documents at the time encouraged. It was significant and necessary to the success of the agreement not to challenge or advance beyond what was then accepted understandings. This basic decision has been confirmed over and again during the life of the Covenant.
Most importantly the document was written to supply a series of discrete actions in bullet form that the dioceses and synods committed themselves to do. It included several actions which would be carried out by the coordinating committee of LARC, and especially a series of actions that were encourage within and between parishes/congregations and other ministries of the church such as institutional chaplaincies.
In the summer of 1990 the bishops made a final set of changes to the document and it was signed and released in the midst of celebratory worship at the annual LARC conference in the fall. The document received national and even international attention at the time. It has been the model for several covenant agreements across the U.S.
It is important to note that the process of preparing the text is one of its major benefits. It brought judicatory leaders together in a way that built trusted relationships which continue to benefit the ecumenical life of the Commonwealth. Over the last quarter century all judicatory leaders of the Covenant communities without exception have affixed their names to the document.
The LARC conference committee now became the coordination committee under the aegis of the Covenant. The coordinating committee held a series of meetings within and between the partner churches to explain the contents of the document. Published copies of the documents were encouraged to be displayed by the judicatories and the congregation/parishes. It is heartening to find after 25 years the document on display at all the judicatory offices and within many local gathered communities. The Commonwealth coordinating committee fostered regional LARC’s. These groups have seen a checkered history in the five regions of the state, nevertheless, three are active today and two have been in continuous existence since first initiated.
A major augmentation of the Covenant came when the local Conference of the United Methodist Church publicly entered into the agreement in 2006. This precipitated a helpful evaluation of the whole document and was accomplished with only a very few editorial changes.
The past twenty five years have seen an enormous amount of additional ecumenical work; the formation of “Full Communion” relationships and not a few challenges to ecumenical relationships. The document has stood the test of this time. The original encouragement continues to challenge the local churches to live into the initial commitments that are more profound than many first recognized.
The annual meeting of LARC (now LARCUM) was transformed from a conference with a general ecumenical focus, often on specific documents, to a conference which highlighted one of the action items in the Covenant. Nearly every aspect of the document has thus been highlighted sometimes more than once over the years. The coordinating committee has devoted annual meetings to the issue of racism, inter-faith marriages, the history of the traditions in the Commonwealth of Virginia and a three year look at Vatican II and its continuing implications. Each annual conference has striven to find the best voices in the country to help unpack the topics. This has been immeasurably assisted by the rich theological resources in the Middle Atlantic Region of the U.S. Three times the venue for the conference, which rotates its location among the regions of Virginia, has been held on college campuses in order to encourage a new generation of ecumenists.
The Conference itself has evolved from a traditional lecture series to a more interactive relationship with the presenter and time for the assembly to meet in regions, to both get to know each other and initiate conversations that might lead to local activity. The annual conference continues to see attendance of between 100-200 participants for an overnight event, no less.
One of the strengths of this whole process has been the longstanding and matured relationship of the planning committee and the trust that the church leadership maintains for the committee in its custodianship of the document. Every conference has a planned meeting of the bishops and the state committee at a dinner prior to the Conference and a planning lunch meeting in the midst of the conference.
Ecumenical fortunes have swung up and down like the stock market over the years. It is sometimes in the news, sometimes all but forgotten and dismissed. The Virginia model has endured because of the commitment of its planners, a structure that supports and draws attention to ecumenical substance and potential, but most of all to a well nurtured and constantly attended to web of relationships. In ecclesiastical settings seriously challenged and distracted by many things, just as is the larger world, a persistent and patient attention to something as fundamental to the life of the church as is its unity has not been lost and bears much fruit in many hidden but profoundly important ways.
The Covenant history in Virginia shows that no matter what the future brings in challenges and celebrations to the church, the future for the church in this place will also bear the marks of an ecumenical future.