New York Times, August 20, 1999

Lutherans Endorse Connection to the Episcopal Church


DENVER, Aug. 19, 1999 -- The nation's largest Lutheran denomination voted Thursday to enter an agreement for full communion with the Episcopal Church, under which the two churches, which together represent nearly eight million American Protestants, would fully recognize each other's members and sacraments, exchange clergy when needed and join in missionary and social service projects.

For the 5.2 million-member Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the vote Thursday morning, by its top policy-making body, the Churchwide Assembly, reverses a decision made two years ago, in which the elected assembly narrowly rejected a similar agreement with the 2.4 million Episcopalians.

The decision here on a proposal likened more to a marriage than to a merger, because both churches retain their creeds and structures, is a boost for an ecumenical movement among Protestants that had been waning in recent years. It also demonstrates a growing willingness among Christian leaders to establish closer, formal ties in the face of increasing religious pluralism in the United States.

But the proposal, subject to the approval of the Episcopalians, will probably be felt beyond the United States, encouraging closer cooperation between Lutherans and Anglicans in Europe, Africa and elsewhere.

In the debate this morning, the Rev. Ishmael Noko, a Lutheran from Zimbabwe who is general secretary of the Lutheran World Federation, an association of 128 churches, with about 60 million members in 70 countries, told the voting members that whatever they decided were "also decisions affecting sister churches" around the globe. He predicted full communion agreements would be established between the fast-growing Lutheran and Anglican churches in Africa within five years.

By recognizing each other's members and sacraments, the two churches would allow joint worship services to be held.

Could pool resources

But a major reason cited by Lutheran and Episcopalian supporters of the proposal was that it would allow the denominations to pool resources, particularly in rural and inner-city areas where congregations are often small and financially hard pressed. An important provision would allow a clergy member in one denomination to be fully accepted for work in the other, such as to fill a vacancy, or to take charge of two struggling churches of different denominations that could not alone afford a pastor.

"Called to Common Mission," the proposal for full communion with Episcopalians, passed by a vote of 716 to 317 -- 69 percent to 31 percent, and 27 votes more than the necessary two-thirds majority -- after three days of often contentious discussion at the Colorado Convention Center here, where the assembly has been meeting.

The Episcopalians will vote at their next General Convention in July 2000.

The Episcopal Church passed the previous proposal for full communion by a majority of about 95 percent in 1997.

The vote on the pact with Episcopalians was not the only full communion agreement that Lutherans approved today. Earlier, the assembly adopted a proposal for full communion with the 49,000-member Moravian Church in America, a Protestant denomination that traces its roots to the followers of Jan Hus, a 15th-century leader and critic of the established church.

That agreement, too, will be felt overseas, as a majority of the world's Moravians, and millions of Lutherans, live in southern Africa. The agreement takes effect immediately because it has been approved by the Moravian church.

"Today, we made history in these two remarkable ecumenical relationships," said the Rev. H. George Anderson, the Lutherans' presiding bishop, the church's top official.

The votes were the second time the Evangelical Lutheran Church has moved to enter a series of full communion agreements. In 1997, it forged pacts with three denominations in Protestantism's Reformed wing, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the United Church of Christ and the Reformed Church in America.

By reaching out to Episcopalians today, the Lutherans were positioning themselves as the bridge church in Protestantism, placing themselves at the center of a nexus linking church traditions that emerged from the 16th-century Reformation. Episcopalians do not have full communion agreements with those other Protestant denominations.

'We have work to do together'

A strong supporter of the agreement with Episcopalians, Bishop Stephen Bouman of the Lutheran church's Metropolitan New York Synod, said, "The first thing I'm going to do is call up Bishops Grein and Walker and tell them we have work to do together." Bishop Richard Grein leads the Episcopal Diocese of New York, and Bishop Orris Walker is in charge of the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island.

The proposal for full communion with the Episcopal Church has been deeply controversial among Lutherans. Although the two churches are close in matters of theology and liturgy, and both ordain women, they have had significant differences over the role and authority of bishops.

Many who opposed the full communion proposal said it would require them to embrace an idea of church hierarchy outside American Lutheranism, the concept of the "historic episcopate," a belief among Episcopalians that their bishops represent an unbroken line of church leadership extending to the earliest days of Christianity.

Lutheran bishops are elected for six-year terms and are often regarded primarily as administrators, returning to being pastors after their terms.

Episcopal bishops are elected for life, sit as a separate governing body in their church's convention and play a more visible role in church public events, confirming adolescent members and ordaining priests and deacons.

In approving the full communion proposal, Lutherans agreed that their bishops would become part of the historic episcopate, such that each time a new bishop is elected, he or she will be installed in a ceremony at which at least three bishops, already in the historic episcopate, lay their hands in prayer on the head of the new bishop, symbolically passing on an ancient authority. Lutherans agreed that a bishop would preside at the ordination of pastors.


During the two-hour debate, dozens of people spoke.

Those against the proposal generally cited their opposition to the historic episcopate, while those who supported it often appealed to the ideal of Christian unity. Bishop Roy Riley of New Jersey, a supporter of the agreement, said that Lutherans in his state number only 82,000 out of a population of 8 million and that "we need partners."

An opponent of the proposal, the Rev. Roger Eigenfeld of Mahtomedi, Minn., said that those who had fought it would stay in the church and wanted to talk with Bishop Anderson.

Another foe, the Rev. Brad Jensen of Duluth, Minn., said Lutherans who voted in the minority needed to take the decision in a spirit of "Christian love." But he also said that a word he had heard used to describe people who opposed the proposal, "fearful," would not promote healing.