A dissident group within the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) has vowed to continue its battle against an ecumenical agreement that would bring the ELCA into full communion with the Episcopal (Anglican) Church in the United States.Despite this opposition, the ELCA council, which met in Chicago from April 7 to 9, voted to continue the move towards full communion, which is scheduled to go into effect January 1, 2001 and is known as "Called to Common Mission (CCM)." The agreement will not lead to a merger of the two denominations. However, it will mean that they will fully recognize each other's members, ministries and sacraments, and will be able to exchange clergy.The dissident group, called WordAlone, opposes the move towards full communion because it says the agreement violates basic Lutheran traditions. And while the group is officially opposed to splitting off from the ELCA, a spokesman for the group, Christopher Hershman, said that "the specter of schism [exists] because the ELCA won't dialogue with us."Under the planned agreement with the Episcopalians, the 5.2-million-member ELCA would accept the tradition of the "historic episcopate," the belief that only bishops tracing their succession back to Jesus' apostles can ordain new bishops.Anglican churches traditionally believe that the historic episcopate is an essential element of the church that must be respected in any agreement for union with other churches. Lutheran churches in some parts of the world embrace the historic episcopate, but many do not.For the first time, ELCA bishops would be integrated into the historic episcopate, and required to be present at the ordination of ELCA clergy. Currently, most bishops attend and perform these ordinations, although they may in certain cases delegate their role to another cleric."The historic episcopate is an offence to many Lutherans," Hershman, a Lutheran pastor, told Ecumenical News International (ENI).He said he could not specify a membership estimate for his organization, but said 200 ELCA congregations—out of a total of nearly 11,000 congregations in the US—had made a commitment to the organization. He predicted that eventually 10 percent of ELCA congregations would support WordAlone. At least 1,000 people had attended a recent WordAlone meeting in the state of Minnesota, he said.Some of the group's supporters include prominent US Lutheran scholars, laity and a former Minnesota state governor, Al Quie. Other supporters include Michael Rogness of Luther Seminary in Minnesota, Timothy Huffman of Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus, Ohio, and Lenae Rasmussen, a prominent lay person from Tennessee.The ELCA already has full communion agreements with several of the country's Reformed churches, including the Presbyterian Church USA, The Reformed Church in America and the United Church of Christ. The ELCA is also in full communion with the Moravian Church. None of these churches follows the tradition of the historic episcopate.In March one of the synod assemblies of the ELCA, that of Eastern North Dakota, adopted a resolution allowing church "members, congregations, pastors and bishops to freely accept or reject local implementation" of the historic episcopate.At its April meeting, the ELCA council responded to that resolution by declaring that the ELCA's synods were not free to accept or reject documents governing the entire church, and that the church's ecumenical commitments "are not legislated on a synod-by-synod basis."Dr George Anderson, the ELCA's presiding bishop, acknowledged that there were differing opinions about the CCM, the ELCA News Service reported, but said the council should not interfere with the move towards communion, which was approved in 1999 by a 716-317 vote by the ELCA church assembly. The general convention of the Episcopal Church is to consider the CCM this summer when it meets in Colorado.The ELCA's Conference of Bishops reaffirmed the CCM at a meeting last month, saying it expected the two churches would be involved in "broad consultation" over the implementation of the agreement.John Brooks, ELCA spokesman, told ENI: "The ELCA is a church of many diverse viewpoints, and we also recognize that the members do not always agree. The church encourages members to seek the proper avenues to raise concerns to the whole church."However, Hershman told ENI that the ELCA was "paying lip service" to ELCA members who disagree with the church on the issue, but is showing "no [real] interest in dialogue."When asked to specify WordAlone's stance on schism, Hershman said the group had no plans to leave the church, and remained committed to working within the ELCA. But Hershman said talk of schism would be present as long as some ELCA members believed their concerns were not being considered. "We want to stay, but they may throw us out."Brooks told ENI the talk of "schism" was "somewhat puzzling."He said: "I attended the WordAlone constituting convention, and nearly all of the major speakers said the intention of the movement is to serve as a force for renewal in the ELCA. WordAlone's members want to remain in the ELCA. I don't think that has changed for many of WordAlone's supporters."David Perry, the ecumenical officer of the Episcopal Church, told the Episcopal News Service (ENS) that despite disagreements within the ELCA, he did not expect the ELCA would change its mind and abandon the CCM. And while there was "genuine excitement" over the possibilities of the two churches acting in full communion, work would be required by both churches."The hard work begins after we pass CCM," he told ENS, "because both churches will need to develop new skills at partnership and mutual accountability in our pursuit of mission together."Copyright © 2000 Ecumenical News International. Used with permission.
WorldAlone's Web site offers information about the organization and its opposition to CCM.The ELCA's site offers a more positive take on full communion with the Episcopal Church, as does the Episcopal News Service.Christianity Today's past coverage of the dispute includes:Dwelling in Unity? | Lutherans, Episcopalians aspire to full communion, but differences remain over role of bishops. (Oct. 4, 1999) Lutherans, Episcopalians Revive Talks (July 13, 1998) Role of Bishops Stalls Lutheran-Anglican Unity (Oct. 6, 1997) Back to the Drawing Board for Ecumenism? | Some clergy resist Lutheran-Episcopal concordat (Apr. 4, 1997)
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