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August 28, 1999
Column #939

EVANGELICAL LUTHERANS LINK WITH EPISCOPALIANS

    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 Reformation.

    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 church.

    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 theological education.

    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 arrogant.

    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 Lutheran seminarians.

    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.

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