Though the two denominations will remain autonomous, partnership is in the air. They’ll recognize each other’s rites, go on joint missionary projects, and pool resources in areas like inner cities where congregations may not be able to support two different churches. And Van Biema says the impact will be even greater overseas. "This will really encourage Lutherans and Anglicans in Europe, Africa and elsewhere get closer together," he says. "With the Lutherans already having pacts like this with a lot of other, smaller Protestant groups, they could be a hinge group for a very large alliance." Four centuries after Luther’s theses, is Protestantism about to unite under one roof again? Van Biema doubts it. But with old-time Christianity under siege from feel-good Buddhists and new-age amalgams, an economy of scale could help keep Protestantism in business.
Like a lot of industries, the organized-religion business is splintered and very competitive; it stands to reason that a big merger would come along every once in a while. On Thursday, the 5.2 million-member Evangelical Lutheran Church and the 2.4 million-member Episcopal Church looked ready to join forces in a marriage designed to help both churches improve their reach -– and the Protestant faith improve its drawing power. The two have tried this before, and it was the Lutherans that were the deal-breakers. "An alliance like this failed two years ago over the issue of Lutherans having to accept the Episcopalian bishops," says TIME religion correspondent David Van Biema. The sticking point: the bishops are ordained by a church hierarchy that Lutherans feel their namesake would have dispensed with. "It’s dramatic that the pact’s supporters were able to overcome that opposition," he says. "But it will remain a fundamental difference between the two groups."