A German Protestant bishop has urged Roman Catholic and Lutheran churches to draw up a joint declaration on their shared beliefs about the Eucharist, one of the issues that has divided them for hundreds of years since the Reformation.
"Our understandings of the Eucharist or Lord's Supper are no longer that far apart," said Lutheran Bishop Friedrich Weber, who deals with relations between the Catholic Church and the United Evangelical Lutheran Church of Germany (VELKD), a grouping of eight German regional Protestant churches.
This follows a separate initiative of a group set up by Lutheran and Catholic churches in Sweden and Finland that has been discussing ways in which the two church traditions might advance the results of a 1999 joint Lutheran-Catholic declaration on the doctrine of justification.
A report released in March by the group had said there is now greater consensus on, "the foundations of spiritual life, faith and sacraments, especially baptism and Communion". Differences nevertheless remain on the ministry of pastors and bishops.
"The goal has been that this now achieved common understanding could make the path towards shared Communion easier," said Lutheran Bishop Eero Huovinen of Helsinki after the release of the report.
The report recommends that the Catholic Church consider broadening the "exceptional circumstances" in which Christians of other traditions might receive Communion, he stated. "Even though this is not easy, it would allow us to take steps toward a common Communion table in Sweden and Finland," said Huovinen.
Bishop Weber made his comments recently in Frankfurt, noting that the Eucharist had been a divisive issue in the Reformation era. However, dialogue in recent times between Catholics and Lutherans had enabled a "differentiated consensus" to be reached.
Weber asserted this would make possible a declaration that there are now no differences of a church-dividing nature between the two traditions about the doctrine of the Eucharist, also called Holy Communion or the Lord's Supper. The sacrament commemorates Jesus' last meal with his disciples.
The German bishop noted, however, that Lutherans and Catholics continue to have different understandings about the doctrine of the Church and the place of the ordained ministry which prevent them sharing together in the Lord's Supper.
Still, he said, a joint declaration on the Eucharist by Lutherans and Catholics would help to eliminate "many prejudices and misunderstandings that continue to persist on both sides".
The bishop suggested as a model the joint declaration signed in 1999 between the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church on the doctrine of justification, also a divisive issue in the past. The two sides said that Reformation-era condemnations no longer apply to the present-day teaching of Lutherans and Catholics about the doctrine.
Bishop Weber's comments came in advance of the Ecumenical Kirchentag, or church convention, in Munich in May organized by German Protestant and Catholic groups and at which more than 100 000 participants are expected.
The issue of the Eucharist surfaced at the last Ecumenical Kirchentag in 2003 in Berlin when a Protestant parish organised an ecumenical Eucharist at which a Catholic priest presided. The priest was later suspended from his functions by his bishop.
Weber said that the different positions of the Lutheran and Catholic churches should be respected and for this reason there would be no joint Protestant and Catholic celebration of the Eucharist in Munich.
However, Protestant churches [said] when organising their communion services, they would continue to invite all baptised Christians to take part.
[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International  is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the Conference of European Churches.]