Rocky Mountain News, 20 Aug 1999

Lutherans narrowly approve joining Episcopalians

Margin of victory during Denver tally is 27 votes more than two-thirds required

By Jean Torkelson
Denver Rocky Mountain News Religion Writer


Lutherans debated, paused to pray then made history Thursday in Denver when they narrowly voted to join the Episcopal Church in a religious alliance three decades in the making.

The margin, 27 votes over the required two-thirds, means the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America agrees to accept the so-called "historic episcopate."

That's the belief in the unbroken line of bishops that Episcopalians trace to the origins of Christianity. The tenent was the key issue in the Lutheran debate over the alliance, or "full communion."

Under the alliance, the churches -- representing 7.6 million American churchgoers -- will fully recognize each other's members and sacraments, exchange clergy when needed and join in missionary and social service projects.

As the votes of the 1,033 delegates began toting up on the huge, overhead electronic boards, applause began to build in the Colorado Convention Center. The Lutheran assembly runs through Sunday.

Quietly, although visibly moved, presiding bishop H. George Anderson implored silence.

"Wait a moment," he said. "Ask God's guidance."

After a short prayer, Anderson, a full communion supporter, announced, "Today, we have made history."

The vote was 716-317.

'Delighted'

"I'm delighted," said Denver-based Bishop Allan Bjornberg, whose Rocky Mountain Synod overwhelmingly endorsed full communion. "The Holy Spirit has thrown the door wide open and said, 'Go for it."'

Under the alliance, the nation's largest Lutheran denomination will be able to throw its 5.2 million member resources into a new, evangelizing powerhouse with the 2.4 million member Episcopal Church.

Episcopalians contribute their own formidable Christian global network. What's more, they offer a lineage of bishops stretching back 2,000 years. Lutherans say that historic episcopate restores their own link to the early history of Christianity.

The two churches will be able to interchange clergy, share outreach programs and combine congregations in sparsely churched areas.

On the other hand, Anderson said afterward, "There is no change in congregational life or synod operation."

The difference, he said, "is that in ordination, bishops would always be present."

Elevating the role of bishops spurred a grassroots, Midwestern revolt that nearly derailed alliance talks that began 30 years ago.

Opponents argued that Martin Luther's egalitarian belief in "the priesthood of all believers" clashes with the historic episcopate, which says bishops play a special role in transmitting Christianity through the ages.

"How can I preach it if I don't believe it?" said the Rev. Roger Eigenfeld of Mahtomedi, Minn. The suburban Twin Cities pastor had energized opposition in the Upper Midwest and stamped his town's name to a counter-resolution.

After the vote, a downcast Eigenfeld said he looks forward to continued cooperation with Episcopalians -- which he always supported -- and said he will not leave the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Beyond that, "We really don't know."

Anderson acknowledged there was fence mending ahead.

"This is a big step for us, but we're not dancing yet," he said.

Healing efforts

Healing efforts likely begin next month, when the presiding bishop visits Minneapolis, ground zero of the opposition. The huge, Lutheran-laced synod has more than twice the pew-power of the five-state, 93,400-member Rocky Mountain Synod.

The Episcopal Church, which OK'd the alliance in 1997, must ratify the Lutheran text next July.

Such pending details didn't dampen the joy of Episcopal officials on the dais for the vote.

"I can't wait to get off the platform," said the Rev. David Perry, an Episcopal priest who helped draft the measure. "The first phone call I have to make is to (our) presiding bishop, Frank Griswold. He's been waiting by the phone all day."

For two hours, queues of Lutherans waited, too. In neat lines, they took turns making pro and con arguments, strictly enforced at two minutes each.

When the vote came, more than 50 people still waited to speak.

Another 50 succeeded. They included Mark Betley of Lakewood, who told the crowd that full communion "is too big a chance to miss. We can be, for each other, agents of God's ongoing sanctification."

Breaking a 'logjam'

"Lutherans are positioned to break the old logjam in the ecumenical movement. (And) we can still govern our own affairs," said supporter Robert Isaksen of New England. He also alluded to the fact that many Lutheran bodies overseas already recognize the historic episcopate.

But the long lines at the microphones say volumes, said Wallace Kemp of Florida. "(They say) we are not united."

For many democratic-minded Lutherans, full communion will do away with one time-honored practice -- the ability of a local pastor to ordain in special circumstances without much challenge from authorities.

That was the experience of the Rev. Greg Isaacson at his ordination in a remote section of Minnesota.

"The bishop wasn't able to come," Isaacson said. When he looked up at his ordaining pastor, he also saw his parents and baptismal sponsors laying their hands over him as a sign of ordination.

Now, "What's going to happen to someone like me?" he asked.

The answer is that future ordinations will need a bishop present except in clear emergencies. That stricture riles Lutherans such as Minnesotan David Morken.

"To me, the essence of the gospel is freedom -- and this is a step backward," Morken said.

More than one speaker alluded wistfully to Thursday's happy sail to full communion with the Moravian Church, a 50,000-member body born in the area of the present-day Czech Republic a century before Martin Luther was born.

That 1,007-11 vote came first Thursday.