Episcopalians and Lutherans Celebrate New Alliance

January 7, 2001

Source: The New York Times

On January 7, 2001, The New York Times reported that, "after more than three decades of debate, the Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America inaugurated an alliance...that will allow them to share clergy members, churches and missionary work." Each "church will retain its own structure and worship style," but the contract, "Called to Common Mission," "brings together two denominations that have long been separated by fundamental differences over the role and authority of bishops." The alliance was celebrated with "a festive procession" into Washington National Cathedral. Presiding Bishop H. George Anderson of the Lutheran Church said that,"on a lot of fronts this model of 'full communion' is going to be explored...because it helps maintain the diversity within Christendom without the animosity and estrangement." According to the pact, now "a Lutheran pastor could serve in an Episcopal church and vice versa, or one pastor could serve several congregations in both denominations." This should help struggling congregations in poor neighborhoods. Plus, "the two churches could also combine efforts in their campus ministries and seminaries, collaborations that have existed before but will now spread." During the past few decades, when this pact was negotiated, "mainline Protestant denominations have been shrinking in numbers and influence. The Episcopal Church has 2.5 million members, down from 3.6 million at its peak in 1965, and 7,400 churches. The Evangelical Lutheran Church, by contrast, with a membership of 5.15 million people and 11,000 churches, has shrunk very little since 1987, when it was formed by the merger of three smaller Lutheran churches." Episcopal leader R. William Franklin, however, said: "The basic vision for church unity was first laid out by the Episcopal church in 1886, so it has nothing to do with current shrinkage. It has to do with a long-term Christian vision toward Christian unity, which has taken this long to work out." The agreement has several opponents. Some Lutherans said "they would protest the alliance by refusing to ordain clergy members and install bishops according to the Episcopal Church's standards." Rev. Mark Chaves said that "Lutheran congregations opposed to the accord will form a new 'association' in March." One of the biggest differences between the two very similar churches is in their views on the role of bishops: "Episcopalians believe that a bishop's spiritual authority stretches back in an unbroken line to St. Peter and the very origins of Christianity. To preserve this lineage, Episcopal bishops are consecrated by other bishops in a laying on of hands, and clergy members must be ordained by bishops. Episcopal bishops are elected for life. Lutherans have a less hierarchical approach, and regard a bishop as a worthy pastor elected for a six-year term to preside over a larger administrative area, or synod. A bishop's installation does not require other bishops or a laying on of hands. The agreement between the two churches requires new Lutheran bishops to be consecrated by Episcopal bishops in a laying on of hands. In return, the Episcopal Church has agreed to accept all the current Lutheran pastors and bishops who have not been ordained in the Episcopal tradition." Bishop Anderson said a proposal is expected to be brought up in August to allow for exceptions to the Episcopal ordination requirements.