Los Angeles Times, Friday, August 20, 1999

Lutherans OK Unity Pact With Episcopalians

By LARRY B. STAMMER, Times Religion Writer

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America approved a historic unity agreement with the Episcopal Church on Thursday in a closely watched vote that is expected to breathe new life into the Christian unity movement on the eve of the new millennium.

The vote at the Lutheran body's Churchwide Assembly in Denver came after three decades of discussion and two years after the Lutheran denomination rejected a similar accord with Episcopalians because of differences in the roles of their bishops. Approval by the Episcopal Church at its general convention next year is said to be virtually certain.

Under the "full communion" agreement with Episcopalians, the two denominations, which together have about 7.5 million members in the United States, would retain their separate organizations and structures. But clergy would be interchangeable. The two denominations already permit their members to receive the sacraments in each other's churches under an interim agreement.

In places where resources are spread thin, such as rural areas, congregations could merge and call a single pastor from either denomination. Joint missionary and service projects are envisioned.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church includes the majority of Lutheran congregations in the United States but not the more conservative Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod, which has not agreed to the unity plan.

The agreement, which followed more than two hours of debate, was hailed by the presiding bishops of both churches. The Most Rev. Frank T. Griswold III of the Episcopal Church greeted the vote with "rejoicing and thanksgiving."

'A historic day'

In Los Angeles, Episcopal Bishop Frederick H. Borsch called the vote a "historic day for the Christian faith" and said he looked forward to discussing joint hospital and prison chaplaincies and inner-city ministries with Lutheran Bishop Paul W. Egertson of the Southern California West Synod.

The Rev. H. George Anderson, presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, declared the vote a "sign of hope that the efforts of Christians to get together are still alive and well."

"There are possibilities for church bodies to do more together in the next millennium because we're learning to trust one another more and respect one another more--finally!" Anderson said in a telephone interview from Denver.

Other church officials active in the movement for Christian unity echoed that hope.

"This is a pretty exciting vision and hope for the new century. It's a huge step forward for the ecumenical journey," said the Rev. David Perry, ecumenical officer for the Episcopal Church, who attended the Lutheran meeting in Denver.

"It will be a sign of hope for the church community and maybe more important for the world in general to see this much-divided Christian church, which talks a lot about unity and reconciliation, taking another little step in that direction."

The Evangelical Lutheran Church two years ago approved similar unity agreements with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the United Church of Christ and the Reformed Church in America. The churches have begun implementing those pacts, with some clergy already being exchanged among the denominations.

In Thursday's voting, the Lutherans, as expected, approved on a near-unanimous vote full communion with the Moravian Church in America, a Protestant church with most of its membership in Pennsylvania and North Carolina.

As was the case throughout the past two years, the vote on the pact with the Episcopal Church was divided, although the debate, observers said, was civil.

Role of bishops was sticking point

The sticking point, as it had been throughout the many years of debate over the unity proposal, was Episcopalian insistence that as a condition of full communion Lutheran bishops be folded into what the churches call the historic episcopate--an unbroken line of succession said by believers to date back to the original apostles of Jesus Christ.

Episcopalians, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches have maintained a historic episcopate. So too have 15 other Lutheran churches around the world, including the largest, the Church of Sweden. But Lutherans in the United States have not.

Under the new agreement, for the first time, the Lutherans have agreed that their new bishops will be consecrated by the laying on of hands by at least three bishops already in the historic line of succession, including at least one Episcopal bishop. As part of the pact, Episcopalians agreed to affirm the validity of the ordinations of existing Lutheran pastors.

Supporters called that agreement a breakthrough that would restore a line of succession that the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century was unable to fully preserve.

"Let us not miss this truly joyous and blessed opportunity to carry on the reformers' dreams," the Rev. G. Scott Cady of the Lutheran body's New England Synod said a day before the vote.

The opposition, which was particularly strong among delegates from the upper Midwest, argued that Episcopalians should be willing to take Lutherans as they are.

"We are being asked to overturn 350 years of Lutheran experience in this country," said the Rev. Walter Taylor of Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus, Ohio. "The cost of the proposal is too high."

But backers of the plan, saying the time had come for change, prevailed. "We write the final chapter for this century in this assembly," Timothy Lull, president of Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in Berkeley, said before the vote. "How does it end?"