New York Times 
Saturday, 31 March 2001

Reading Signposts on Church Unity

By GUSTAV NIEBUHR
 
 

A question that could be put to leaders of America's Protestant denominations is, How does one read the signs of the times as regards church unity? Have Protestants entered a new period of ecumenical cooperation? Or is the prevailing tendency in the other direction, with denominations under such internal pressure, because of controversies, that they risk some fragmentation along regional or ideological lines?

Recent events suggest that arguments can be made both ways.

Ecumenists can point to agreements for full communion in the last four years between the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and five other denominations. These days, 5.1 million Lutherans recognize the members and sacraments of, and also can share clergy with, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the United Church of Christ, the Reformed Church in America, the Moravian Church and the Episcopal Church. Together, these five denominations have close to 7 million members.

But this does not obscure serious divisions appearing within some denominations.

Take the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's biggest Protestant body. Last October, its largest single component, the Baptist organization in Texas, declared financial independence from headquarters. Arguing that the convention had become authoritarian, the Texans decided that the more than $5 million they had been sending to Southern Baptist seminaries would be better spent on projects in Texas.

A smaller break has occurred within the Episcopal Church. Recently, about 20 parishes quit the denomination to seek spiritual harbor within a new organization, the Anglican Mission in America. The dissidents accuse Episcopal leaders of being too liberal on such matters as interpreting the Bible and on issues related to gays in the church.

This past week, an unusual internal rift opened, within the Evangelical Lutheran Church.

Twenty-seven congregations, who retain their ties to the denomination, formed a new organization called the Lutheran Churches in Mission for Christ, bringing together people who oppose the agreement their denomination made with the Episcopalians.

A minority of Lutherans have long opposed a provision of the agreement, that Lutheran bishops will become, like their Episcopal counterparts, part of the "historic episcopate," an unbroken line of ecclesiastical succession going back to the apostles. Opponents have argued this vests too much spiritual authority in an office that Lutherans have regarded as administrative.

Some Lutherans believe the historic episcopate could pose an obstacle to their "freedom in Christ" as individual believers, said Albert H. Quie, the organization's vice chairman. In addition, Mr. Quie said, there are emotional and practical concerns.

"Some even remember the stories of their ancestors leaving the old country to get away from the clericalism that existed in those countries," he said, referring to Lutheran emigrants Europe.

And, he said, "some people have experience of the bishops as being heavy-handed with them."

Mr. Quie is a former governor of Minnesota and served 10 terms as a Republican congressman from that state. He was asked if the new organization might leave the denomination, which has just over 10,000 congregations. No, he responded, "our intention is to stay in the E.L.C.A., as long as we can be free."

Such complaints have not gone unnoticed at Lutheran headquarters in Chicago. "We are concerned about folks who seem opposed to the agreement," said the Rev. Eric C. Schafer, the denomination's spokesman.

Mr. Schafer said the church's top official, Presiding Bishop H. George Anderson, has proposed amending church law to allow seminarians who strongly object to being ordained by a bishop - a feature of the agreement - to be ordained by someone else, with the bishop's authorization.

That proposal will be taken up next week by the denomination's church council, which is similar to a board of directors. If approved, it will be sent to the Lutherans' policy-making body, the Churchwide Assembly, in August.

"We think that's a positive response to the concerns that have been raised," Mr. Schafer said.