Rocky Mountain News, Aug. 18, 1999

Lutherans question wisdom of joining Episcopalians

Opposition to proposal is strong as vote nears

By Jean Torkelson
Denver Rocky Mountain News Religion Writer

Polite but insistent Lutherans questioned Episcopal church leaders in Denver on Tuesday over the painful issue of whether to link the two churches in full communion.

The question has divided the 5.2 million-member Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The nation's largest Lutheran body is holding its churchwide assembly at the Colorado Convention Center through Sunday.

Opposition is so powerful that many observers doubt it has support of the required two-thirds of the 1,039 voting members.

Until the issue is resolved in a scheduled vote Thursday, few Lutherans are mulling over the rest of the week's agenda, which includes a sweeping statement on global economic justice, choosing the next leader of the influential Lutheran magazine, and how much latitude to give homosexuals.

Lutheran spokesman John Brooks isn't even ruling out a late-breaking resolution calling for ordination of practicing homosexuals.

But one controversy at a time.

At the heart of the resistance to full communion is whether Lutherans should submit their church to the authority of Episcopal bishops. That ancient hierarchal system was rejected by Martin Luther in favor of a "priesthood of all believers."

Lutherans stepped to microphones to query the joint panel that drafted the resolution, including prominent Lutheran theologian Martin Marty of the University of Chicago and Episcopal bishops and scholars.

The Rev. Tom Prinz of Washington, D.C., addressed the deeply ingrained Lutheran suspicion of lifelong bishops, as opposed to the democratic Lutheran style of calling pastors to the job for six-year terms.

For 500 years, "Bishops have been called patriarchal, hierarchal and monarchial, and that's not a compliment," Prinz said.

"And I knew some bishops who were turkeys," Episcopal leader E. David Perry replied.

Perry implied that fears of an elite, Anglo-Catholic style hierarchy are becoming moot as the idea of "servant leaders" takes hold. He said that at the last worldwide Anglican conference in London, some bishops even threw their miters into the Thames.

"Why are you so eager to have us?" asked one suspicious delegate, the Rev. Michael Wilker of the western Pacifica synod.

"We're light on the ground with Episcopalians," replied Episcopal bishop Christopher Epting, meaning his Iowa diocese has few members.

Backers argue that under full communion, churches could share clergy in sparsely populated areas. The link also would create a combined evangelical outreach of 7.6 million members.

Faint, scattered groans greeted Episcopal leader Midge Roof when she implied that Lutherans have been rigid in their approach to full communion.

As the proposal was being developed, Roof said, "We felt we were working on a relationship, and the Lutherans were working on a document."

Roof also warned that Episcopalians will lose their enthusiasm for full communion if Lutherans don't adopt the measure this year.

"I believe it's naive (not to expect) we would spend untold sums of money fleshing out this agreement," said the Rev. Norman Wahl, an opponent from Rochester, Minn.