New York Times, 7 Aug 1999

Lutherans to Vote Again on Link to Episcopalians

By GUSTAV NIEBUHR

As anniversary dates go, a notable one in the ecumenical movement among Christian churches comes up on Aug. 18. 

Two years ago that day, the nation's largest Lutheran denomination approved an agreement for close cooperation with three other Protestant denominations. But on the same day, the Lutherans rejected a similar pact with the Episcopal Church, a move that surprised many. 

Both decisions are worth recalling now, because within two weeks leaders of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America will meet in Denver and, once again, debate whether their 5.2 million-member denomination should enter into an agreement of "full communion" with Episcopalians. 

The document outlining the proposed agreement is titled "Called to Common Mission." If it is approved by the denomination's top policy-making body, the Churchwide Assembly, "we would be moving in a very courageous direction," said the Rev. Daniel Martensen, director of the church's Department of Ecumenical Affairs. 

Such a decision, Martensen said, would have a global impact in encouraging closer ties among many churches within the Lutheran and Anglican traditions, which comprise 135 million Christians. (The 2.4 million-member Episcopal Church is part of the Worldwide Anglican Communion of churches.) 

The assembly is scheduled to vote on the matter on Aug. 19. 

Although less than a merger, an agreement to enter into full communion binds churches closely. They agree to recognize one another's sacraments and clergy members and to collaborate in missionary work and social service projects. One effect, cited by supporters of the current proposal, is to allow churches to exchange clergy members, which would mean, for example, that a small Episcopal church that could not afford a full-time priest could share the services of a pastor from a nearby, better-off Lutheran church.

But whether to forge such ties with the Episcopal Church is controversial for many Lutherans. 

The 1997 Churchwide Assembly, meeting in Philadelphia, approved a full communion agreement with three churches in Protestantism's Reformed tradition -- the Presbyterian Church (USA), the United Church of Christ and the Reformed Church in America -- by a 4-to-1 ratio. 

Yet that morning, the proposed Concordat of Agreement with the Episcopalians fell short of the two-thirds majority it needed. The vote was close. 

The proposal failed over concern among Lutherans that Episcopalians vest too much authority in their bishops, who are elected for life and considered part of the "historic episcopate," an unbroken chain of spiritual leadership reaching back to Christianity's earliest days. Lutheran bishops are elected for six-year terms and return, when that service is over, to being pastors. 

After the proposal was defeated, a committee was created to revise aspects of the full communion plan. Nonetheless, opposition remains very much alive.

"I think what riles us most is the required inclusion of the historic episcopate," said the Rev. Kent S. (Tony) Stoutenburg, spokesman for an Internet site created by opponents of the full communion proposal. 

Pastor Stoutenburg, who serves churches in Chinook and Naselle, Wash., said ecumenical cooperation could function well without such formal ties as a full communion agreement. He cited instances in his area in which clergy members across a broad spectrum of faiths had worked together to provide meals for the needy. 

"To me, ecumenism is not about institutions," he said. 

Full communion has been far less controversial among Episcopalians, who voted for it by a 9-to-1 ratio two years ago. The church's leaders are supportive of the revised proposal that the Lutherans will consider, although for it to go into effect, Episcopalians would have to vote on it again when their policy-making body meets next year, an event also scheduled for Denver.

"In terms of our relationship with the Lutherans, it's extremely important," said the Rev. David W. Perry, deputy for ecumenical and interfaith relations of the Episcopal Church. He called it "a major opportunity" for the ecumenical movement, and added, "People are watching to see if it's going to be possible."