New York Times, 7 Jan. 2001

Episcopalians inaugurate alliance with Lutherans

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- After more than 30 years of debate, the Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America inaugurated an alliance Saturday that will allow them to share clergy members, churches and missionary work.

Bishops of both churches, representing a combined membership of 7.7 million people, led a procession into Washington National Cathedral for a service establishing what they call a full-communion relationship between the denominations.

The accord stops short of a merger, because each church will retain its structure and worship style. But the compact, known as "Called to Common Mission," brings together two denominations that long have been separated by fundamental differences over the role and authority of bishops.

"We live in an ecumenical age in which many of the historical divisions between Christian bodies are slowly but surely being overcome," said Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold, the top officer in the Episcopal Church. "This particular relationship between Lutherans and Episcopalians is part of a larger effort across the Christian world to break down some of the historical walls of division."

Presiding Bishop George Anderson of the Lutheran Church said: "I know that there is now renewed contact between our church and the Methodist Church, and I believe also the Methodists and the Episcopalians, and the Episcopalians and the Moravians. So on a lot of fronts this model of 'full communion' is going to be explored, and it's a good model, because it helps maintain the diversity within Christendom without the animosity and estrangement."

The alliance could have an immediate effect on struggling Episcopal and Lutheran congregations, especially in inner-city and rural areas that are too small or too poor to have their own clergy. With this agreement, a Lutheran pastor could serve in an Episcopal church, and vice versa, or one pastor could serve several congregations in both denominations.

The Episcopal Church has 2.5 million members, down from 3.6 million at its peak in 1965, and 7,400 churches. The Evangelical Lutheran Church, by contrast, with a membership of 5.15 million people and 11,000 churches, has shrunk very little since 1987, when it was formed by the merger of three smaller Lutheran churches.

More contentious 

After years of debate, the Episcopalians ratified the agreement at their general convention in Denver in July. It was much more contentious for the Lutherans, who approved it in August 1999 after rejecting it two years earlier.

The agreement is not without its opponents. An increasingly organized faction of Lutherans said Friday that they would protest the alliance by refusing to ordain clergy members and install bishops according to the Episcopal Church's standards.

"We will resist the implementation of this agreement," said the Rev. Mark Chaves, executive director of the New Brighton-based WordAlone Network, which grew out of an Internet discussion among 40 people opposed to the accord and now counts as members 4,000 individuals and 135 congregations. "There will be seminarians ordained by people other than bishops, and we will work for the election of bishops who will not submit to the Episcopal requirements."

Lutheran congregations opposed to the accord will form a new association in March, Chaves said. As to whether that association would break away and form a new denomination, he said, "It could, but our hope is it wouldn't lead to that."

The Lutheran and Episcopal churches are close cousins in terms of theology and liturgy, but they had to confront incompatibilities over the role of bishops.

Episcopalians believe that a bishop's spiritual authority stretches back in an unbroken line to St. Peter and the origins of Christianity. To preserve this lineage, Episcopal bishops are consecrated by other bishops in a laying on of hands, and clergy members must be consecrated by bishops. Episcopal bishops are elected for life.

Lutherans have a less hierarchical approach and regard a bishop as a worthy pastor elected for a six-year term to preside over a larger administrative area, or synod. A bishop's installation does not require other bishops or a laying on of hands.

The agreement between the churches requires new Lutheran bishops and clergy members to be ordained by Episcopal bishops in a laying on of hands. In return, the Episcopal Church has agreed to accept all the current Lutheran pastors and bishops who have not been ordained in the Episcopal tradition.