The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and the Episcopal Church may not agree about bishops or about moral standards for homosexuals, but they could be in "full communion" within a year.
Meeting in Denver for a week in August, ELCA's biennial Churchwide Assembly approved a unity proposal, "Called to Common Mission" (CCM), by 716 to 317—comfortably above the required two-thirds majority.
If approved by the Episcopal Church's triennial General Convention next year, CCM would unite ELCA's 5.2 million members with 2.4 million Episcopalians. Full communion would not be a merger, but it would enable the denominations to share clergy, celebrate Communion together, and work in more visible unity.
The previous Churchwide Assembly rejected the original full-communion proposal, the Concordat of Agreement, by a mere six votes two years ago (CT, Oct. 6, 1997, p. 81). CCM is a revision of the Concordat coming out of ecumenical talks that were revived last year (CT, July 13, 1998, p. 13).
Among Lutherans, CCM opposition focused on the ministry of bishops. Both denominations affirm the concept of apostolic succession as the authentic transmission of Christian faith through the ages. Many Episcopalians go further, saying they can trace the consecrations of bishops back to the original apostles and insisting that such lineage is essential to apostolic succession. During the sixteenth century, that link was severed for Lutherans (except in Sweden) because few Roman Catholic bishops joined the Protestant Reformation.
A VIGOROUS DEBATE: Voting members approved four different amendments to CCM, all by margins of 80 percent or greater. CCM opponent Mark Rydberg, one of more than fifty voting members to flock to microphones for the plenary debate, said the debate was not merely about the historic episcopate, but more about the necessity of Lutherans adopting the historic episcopate to achieve full communion. "We come with honest differences in perspective," Rydberg said. "The issue is not bishops. The issue is a certain form of bishops." Episcopal bishops carry greater power than their Lutheran counterparts, and some CCM opponents are concerned that Lutheran bishops will gain similar lifelong authority.
CCM supporter Tom Koch said the debate about the historic episcopate "has taken on a life of its own." But it is not the real issue. He said, "Do we balk when we are asked to change? Some times there is a cost to discipleship."
Supporter Mark Betley said that a "Lutheran heresy" says only, "God loves us just the way we are," without adding "and loves us so much that God will not leave us there."
"This is too big a chance to miss," Betley said. "We must walk up to the precipice of the historic episcopate and remain people who live by the Word."
Opponent Rebecca Wagner worried that CCM would dilute Lutherans' confessional identity. "Words matter," she said. "The words we have before us are words I cannot agree with." Wagner said she could not reconcile CCM with the Augsburg Confession.
Marcus Miller disagreed. "Our ecumenical reach needs to be broad. It needs to be to the Right and to the Left," he said. "We have an opportunity to act our way into new ways of thinking for the sake of the gospel of Jesus Christ."
After the assembly approved CCM and proponents began applauding, Presiding Bishop George H. Anderson urged respectful silence. "Friends, we'll have a chance to think about this," he said. "Let's just wait in the moment and ask for God's guidance."
David Perry, the Episcopal Church's ecumenical officer, expressed elation as Anderson invited his response to the vote. "What hope for a new century!" Perry exclaimed.
On the day of the vote, CCM opponents Kathleen Anderson and Robert Lewis, pastors of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Rockville Center, New York, said they "hold this vote as not binding upon ourselves, our consciences, and our ministry," and invited other pastors to join them in the statement.
The assembly also voted on full communion with the 49,000-member Moravian Church in America. Full communion with the Moravian Church sailed through the assembly, after minimal discussion, on a vote of 1,007 to 11. Moravians accept the historic creeds but, unlike Lutherans, place no strong emphasis on creeds or confessions.
CRITICIZING CELIBACY: As Lutherans debated homosexuality, liberals criticized the church's expectation that clergy with a homosexual orientation abstain from sexual relations. "It is the equivalent of saying that overweight people may be ordained, but may not eat," said Betsy Liljeberg.
Jay McDivitt, vice president of ELCA's Lutheran Youth Organization, said he has felt a longtime call to be a Lutheran pastor.
"If I perhaps fall in love with a man, which is a definite possibility, I would be prevented from serving the church I love," McDivitt said. "This hurts me deeply, be cause it is wrong."
The assembly overwhelmingly accepted a resolution, 820 to 159, that up holds ELCA's current policies on noncelibate homosexual clergy, but encourages continued discussion. The resolution says there is no "arbitrarily set timetable for concluding the discussion" and that ELCA must "await a time of clearer understanding provided by the Lord of the Church."
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