St. Paul Pioneer-Press, 6 Jan 2001

Lutherans, Episcopalians Cement Ties

Service today seals agreement despite dissent in ELCA


When Lutherans and Episcopalians began work on strengthening the ties between their two historic branches of the Christian church, members of this year's St. Olaf College Choir weren't even born.

But this morning in Washington, D.C, the 75-member choir from Northfield not only will represent Minnesota but the tradition of the entire Evangelical Lutheran Church in America as the two denominations inaugurate a relationship of full communion.

The choir will sing before and during a two-hour service at the National Cathedral, where the ELCA and the Episcopal Church, USA will celebrate the culmination of more than three decades of talks, proposals and votes.

By entering into full communion, the denominations have not merged but may share in worship, sacraments and mission. They also may share clergy, although new ordination practices have been difficult, if not impossible, for some Lutherans to accept.

``The whole aspect of these two churches coming together, it has its points of controversy, but anything that brings the church of Jesus Christ together is a positive step,'' said Anton Armstrong, director of the St. Olaf Choir. ``There's not even full agreement on this campus, but I'm proud to be going, and I really hope it will lead to a greater sense of unity in the years to come. If we can get past the politics, we'll be fine.''

When the choir, accompanied by St. Olaf organist John Ferguson, sings in the Episcopal cathedral, it will represent the kind of blending that full communion hopes to achieve. The Cathedral Choir also will participate.

The cathedral is expected to be at capacity of 3,600 people for the service of Holy Eucharist. 

Giving birth

``I think there is something about this ritual and the rite and the celebration that is a feeling of giving birth to what is going to be happening among our congregations and synods as we enter into this agreement,'' said Janet Thompson of Eagan, who will attend the service as vice president of the ELCA St. Paul Area Synod. Each synod or diocese in the country was allowed to send four people.

The Rev. Grant Abbott, rector at St. Matthew's Episcopal Church in St. Paul, was recently named to the 14-member national joint coordinating committee to oversee the implementation of Called to Common Mission, the formal document that was approved by the ELCA in 1999 and Episcopal Church in 2000.

``This is a time of great rejoicing for people who have worked very hard for a very long time and who see the possibilities and the implications of two churches coming together to better serve the wider community and wider world in common mission,'' said Abbott.

Among the implications of full communion might be ELCA or Episcopal congregations sharing ordained clergy in areas where there otherwise may not be enough to serve.

But the sharing of clergy has been controversial, especially to some members of the ELCA, because the agreement requires new pastors to be ordained by a bishop who is a member of the ``historical episcopate,'' according to Episcopal practice. Those bishops are thought to represent an unbroken line dating to the beginning of the Christian church.

'Tragic day'

Some Lutherans strenuously object because they believe in a ``priesthood of all believers,'' a doctrine dating to their church's founder, Martin Luther. In Lutheran tradition, new pastors may be ordained either by other pastors or local bishops.

``From our perspective, it's a tragic day,'' said Mark Chavez, executive director of the WordAlone Network, which counts 80,000 members nationwide who believe Called to Common Mission is a false unity that requires abandoning core Lutheran beliefs. ``This return to the old world of European hierarchies isn't going to serve the church well in the 21st century, particularly in proclaiming the Gospel and in mission.''