August 28, 1999
EVANGELICAL LUTHERANS LINK WITH
The night before he died, Jesus prayed that his
followers ''may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you....so
that the world may believe that you have sent me.''
Mainline denominations have taken this prayer far more
seriously than Evangelicals who continue to splinter into more small
denominations every year.
Last week, the 5.2 million member Evangelical Lutheran
Church of America (ELCA) after 30 years of dialogue with the 2.5 million
member Episcopal Church, and three days of intense debate, voted to create
an historic union. The action was approved by 69 percent of 1,033 voting
delegates, but only 27 votes more than the necessary two-thirds majority.
The vote reversed ELCA's refusal to take this step two years ago, when it
was defeated by only 6 votes.
Episcopalians ratified the earlier proposal by 95
percent and are expected to back this version when they meet in July, 2000.
Two years ago, the ELCA entered into full communions
with three denominations in Protestantism's Reform churches, the United
Church of Christ, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the Reformed Church
of America. Thus, the Lutherans have positioned themselves as a bridge
church of Protestantism, linking together the major churches growing out of
The major church outside the fold is the 2.6 million
member Lutheran Church Missouri Synod.
This union will undoubtedly draw the 73 million member
Anglican Communion (of which Episcopalians are part) closer to the 60
million members of the Lutheran World Federation. They are the world's
largest Protestant denominations, and are growing most rapidly in Africa.
It is not a merger because both churches retain their
creeds and structures, but is a ''full communion'' detailed in a document,
''Called to Common Mission.'' ELCA ecumenical director Dan Martensen
identifies the union's ''distinguishing marks:'' First, an agreement on the
basics of the faith, such as the trinity and the role of Jesus Christ. Each
also recognizes the other's baptisms, and members may worship in either
Lutherans and Episcopalians will be in common witness
and service such as serving in soup kitchens together. There will be a
common decision-making structure through joint commissions on such issues as
Most important, the clergy of each denomination may
serve in the churches of the other. There will also be joint ordinations of
clergy and elevation of bishops.
While the churches have had common theology and
ordination of women, full communion was resisted by some Lutherans because
they did not approve of the power of Episcopal bishops who are elected for
life, while Lutherans hold six-year positions, and then revert back to being
pastors. The Episcopal House of Bishops has an equal legislative power with
a House of Delegates, made up equally of clergy and lay leaders. ELCA
bishops have no such power.
Lutheran skepticism of bishops is particularly intense
among descendants of Scandinavian Lutheran Churches, whose bishops wielded
great power autocratically in the 19th Century. Lutherans from the sparsely
populated upper Midwest, so cherished local church autonomy, that they did
not even have any bishops until a merger created the ELCA in 1986.
However, the full communion proposal required ELCA to
embrace what Episcopalians called the ''historic episcopate,'' a conviction
that their bishops represent an unbroken line of church leadership extending
back to the Apostles. The original agreement called for three Episcopal
bishops, of that unbroken line, to install a new bishop along with three
Lutheran bishops. This made Lutherans feel subservient. Episcopalian Prof.
Bob Wright of General Theological Seminary agreed the proposal seemed
A compromise allows Lutherans to import Lutheran
bishops who are from the historic episcopate from such countries as Sweden
and Tanzania to lay their hands on new Lutheran bishops. Even so, both sides
set up competing hospitality suites in Denver hotels before narrowly
approving full communion.
What practical difference will it make?
Episcopal Bishop Christopher Epting, the church's
leader in the negotiations, tells of a little Episcopal church in Waverly,
Iowa which can't afford a priest. In the same town is Wartburg College,
which has a dozen Lutheran pastors on staff ''who would love to walk across
the street and lead our worship on Sundays.'' Both denominations will join
forces to plant an Hispanic churches in the South Bronx. The General
Theological Seminary will add Lutherans to its faculty and begin accepting
Will the new union breathe enough new life into the
denominations to halt their declining membership. Possibly. The fresh breeze
of collaboration could encourage both churches.
Copyright 1999 Michael J. McManus.