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January 13, 2001
Column #1011

EPISCOPALIANS & LUTHERANS: CALLED TO COMMON MISSION

     In a glorious Epiphany service blending historic Anglican and Lutheran songs and prayers, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and the Episcopal Church jointly celebrated a new relationship of ''full communion'' at the Washington National Cathedral on Saturday.

     A procession of nearly 1,000 colorfully robed Lutheran pastors, Episcopal priests and bishops from all 65 ELCA synods and three-fourths of Episcopal dioceses entered from all sides moving to the center of the cathedral where a huge baptismal font was erected.

     The service opened with a moving greeting, ''We have been brought to this place to show forth his glory and to answer God's call that all may be one.''

     Some 3,500 voices lifted in glorious song, ''God is here! As we your people meet to offer praise and prayer, may we find in fuller measure what it is in Christ we share.''

     These leaders of 5.2 million Lutherans and 2.3 million Episcopalians followed with a common renewal of their baptismal covenant. The entire assembly was then sprinkled with baptismal water ''as a reminder of our Baptism into the risen life of the Risen Christ.''

     As someone read from Isaiah 60: ''Arise, shine, for your light has come,'' I looked up to see stone pillars of the cathedral washed in dazzling colors as the sun shone through stained glass windows. Then the words, ''For darkness shall cover the earth'' seemed to push a cloud blocking the sun's rays, and the splash of colors on the pillars disappeared.

     I know Baptist leaders who say, ''Ecumenism is a dirty word.''

     Episcopal Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold opened his sermon with a Scriptural answer: ''Knit together in the communion of the Holy Spirit, we are as unable to say to one another, as an eye is to say to a hand, `I have no need of you.' (II Corinthians 12:21) without doing violence to the integrity of the body.''

     He then quoted Martin Luther, the 16th Century reformer:''In the communion of saints, we are all brothers and sisters so closely united that a closer relationship cannot be conceived. For in this fellowship we have one baptism, one Spirit, one spiritual body, and each of us is a member one on another. No other society is so deeply rooted, so closely knit.''

     Griswold said ''We are called to common mission; and the mission we share is none other than the mission of Christ and the mission of Christ's body, the Church. According to the Catechism in the Book of Common Prayer, ''The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.''

     ''`How does the Church pursue its mission?' the Catechism continues. `It does so as it prays and worships, proclaims the Gospel and promotes justice, peace and love.'''

     Later the clergy in their differing robes, served communion to the huge crowd with small pieces of bread and wine. Other words of Griswold's sermon, quoting Luther, resonated in me: ''In partaking of this sacrament, all self-seeking love is rooted out. It gives place to that love which seeks the common good...In the sacrament we become united with Christ and are made one body with all the saints.''

     ''Self-seeking love is rooted out,'' Griswold repeated. ''Is it? Or do we tend to emphasize our singularities in order to define ourselves over against one another - and cry out like the tax collector in the Gospel, ''God, I thank you that I am not like other people, other traditions.''

     In fact, both the ELCA and the Episcopal Church have been losing members. The churches that are growing are a myriad of nondenominational congregations which shun liturgy of the centuries and cherish their total independence.

     Yet everyone I interviewed after the service was thrilled by their new sense of Christian unity. Kirk Betts, a board member of Lutheran World Relief, asserted, ''It's been a wonderful celebration. Micah 6:8 says we are `to walk humbly with God and to love our neighbor.' It's quite simple, isn't it?

     ''The differences between the denominations are really very few. It is better to get together for the Christian faith, to celebrate our common belief in Jesus Christ. There is one Christ.''

     On Sunday, in East Northport, N.Y., St. Paul's Lutheran Church and Trinity Episcopal Church held a joint service starting at Trinity. Then everyone got in their cars, drove a mile to St. Paul's for the Eucharist and enjoyed a pot luck lunch afterwards. The pastors signed a document pledging to explore ways the churches can be in common mission to the community. ''Without that we are just having a good time,'' preached Pastor Gary Mehl.

Copyright 2001 Michael J. McManus.

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