Denver Post, 19 August 1999

Church debate down to the wire

By Virginia Culver
Denver Post Religion Writer

August 19 - The last chance for debate on whether the Lutherans will enter into full communion with the Episcopal Church is today, right before a vote on the historic measure.

The document, "Called to Common Mission,'' is the culmination of 30 years of discussions between the two churches to enable them to exchange ministers and share outreach duties to the world.

The plan won approval of the Episcopal Church in 1997. But later that year, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America turned down the proposal; it fell six votes short of the required two-thirds majority needed for passage.

"It'll pass,'' said the Rev. Wayne Weissenbuehler, former bishop of the Rocky Mountain Synod, headquartered in Denver. "It's just that dead center of Lutheranism (the Midwest) that doesn't like this proposal.''

Weissenbuehler is now pastor of Bethany Lutheran Church in southeast Denver.

But Bishop Rick Foss of Fargo, N.D., who opposes the move, said it "will be a miracle'' if the proposal passes.

Leaders of the Episcopal Church, including those who were on the Lutheran-Episcopal team that wrote the proposal, are in Denver this week to hear the debate at the national convention -- [known as the] Church Wide Assembly -- of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. The convention continues through Sunday at the Colorado Convention Center.

The document would allow interchange of pastors between the two denominations and recognition of each church's baptisms; it also would allow members to take communion at each other's churches. Sharing communion was approved by both churches in the 1980s and has been going on ever since. The document also calls for a common commitment to evangelism, mission work and service to their various communities.

Foss and others who oppose the move believe it gives too much power to bishops, and they reminded Lutherans of their historic belief in the "priesthood of all believers'' as more important than bishops. Episcopal bishops are elected for life, but Lutheran bishops serve only a specific term. Episcopal bishops have more power at Episcopal conventions because they comprise one legislative house of their national convention. Lutheran bishops are part of the general delegation at their national conventions.

Others who favor the proposal said Lutherans will retain their current form of church government, even if the document wins approval.

Timothy Lull, a seminary professor, pleaded with delegates Wednesday to pass the measure.

"We can enter the next millennium either with a wonderful big bang or with the wimping, whining and squabbling that has been the dark side of Lutheranism for 400 years,'' said Lull, who teaches at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in Berkeley, Calif.

But the Rev. Norman Wahl said the word and sacrament -- Bible and communion -- are more important than bishops.

"This is a flawed document,'' said Wahl, a pastor in Rochester, Minn. "We all want to share more mission efforts with the Episcopalians, but we don't need the polity and policies of another church. This is the wrong way to do the right thing.''

Referring to the sometimes acrimonious debate, the Rev. Tom Lyberg told delegates that those against the proposal are "usually portrayed as stupid country people,'' and those for it are accused of being "elitists who are trying to steal the Lutheran Church.''

Probably the shortest appeal came from Midge Roof, an Episcopalian who serves as an ecumenical officer for her denomination. After listening to a long debate, she said, "I thought we were working on a relationship. You seem to be perfecting a document.''

Still to come before the 1,024 delegates is a proposal to end the church's ban against ordaining gays, and another resolution that would change the church's stand on abortion. The church approved a statement several years ago saying a woman has the right to choose abortion.


SESSION NOTES

Not everything is deadly serious for delegates at the national convention of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, in session through Sunday at the Colorado Convention Center. For instance: One delegate got a little long-winded during Wednesday's morning session and began quoting Martin Luther.

Presiding Bishop George Anderson, ever patient and diplomatic, politely told the man that his three-minute time limit was up by saying, "I'm sorry to interrupt Martin Luther.'' Then, looking upward, he said, "Sorry, Martin.''

One of the evening sessions made the Rev. Wayne Weissenbuehler fidgety. "This is pretty much like watching paint dry,'' said Weissenbuehler, former bishop of the Rocky Mountain Synod.