Greenbelt Interfaith News
    U.S. Feature

    September 14, 1997

    Summer Conventions '97
    Lutherans (ELCA)
    By Heather Elizabeth Peterson

    Denomination: Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
    Convention: 1997 Churchwide Assembly.
    Date: August 14-20.
    Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
    Hot issue: Ecumenical agreements.

    "Yes" to the Reformed churches. "Yes" to the Catholic Church. "Not quite yet" to the Episcopal Church.

    These are the responses that the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America gave to five denominations anxiously awaiting the ELCA's views on three ecumenical agreements.

    The only agreement that did not pass was the most controversial one: a proposal for full communion with the Episcopal Church. Although the Concordat of Agreement had received overwhelming approval from the Episcopalians at their July meeting, most ELCA members agreed that the time was not yet ripe for the ELCA and the Episcopal Church to share clergy and celebrate services regularly with each other.

    Much of the debate centered around the Concordat's requirement that the ELCA adopt the three-fold ministry of bishops, priests, and deacons. Episcopalians have long stated that this must be a necessary element in all ecumenical agreements; the ELCA, on the other hand, rejected the idea of a three-fold ministry in 1991. The ELCA has no deacons, and its bishops are pastors who are elected to special authority, rather than being ordained for life as Episcopal bishops are.

    In addition, Episcopal clergy are always ordained through the laying-on of hands by bishops who have themselves received the laying-on of hands. Episcopalians believe that this tradition dates back to the early years of the Christian Church. Lutheran pastors may be ordained by other pastors.

    "The most difficult question for me has to do with the proposal in the Concordat of Agreement that the bishops of the ELCA participate in the historic episcopate," said Presiding Bishop H. George Anderson at the beginning of the assembly. If the ELCA adopted the laying-on of hands, he said, "will we soon find ourselves replacing our traditional emphasis on the power of the Word by a new emphasis on the human transfer of authority through the historic episcopate?"

    Anderson responded to his own question by pointing out that the historic episcopate had been adopted by Lutherans in other countries, such as Sweden. He said that the Episcopal Church and the ELCA were like two railroad tracks running parallel to each other, both going in the same direction, and he suggested that the denominations join together through a new railroad tie – the Concordat.

    Other ELCA members, however, remained disturbed by the proposal's attitude toward Christian ministry. If the ELCA accepted the proposal, said the Rev. Michael Rogness, "we become Episcopalian and they stay Episcopalian."

    The Rev. Walter R. Bouman countered this remark by stating that the Episcopal Church had made its own concessions by agreeing to recognize immediately the validity of the ELCA clergy's ministries, even though the Lutheran clergy have not been ordained through the laying-on of hands.

    Many Lutherans, though, agreed that full communion with the Episcopal Church was a good idea, but that the three-fold ministry was not. "The Concordat puts us in a position where we are not free to adopt the structures that we see necessary for mission," said the Rev. David Preus. "We accept the Episcopal church's ministries and sacraments. The historic episcopate is not needed."

    The proposal failed to pass by six votes. So anxious were the Lutherans, though, to indicate that the vote was not intended as a slap in the face of the Episcopal Church, that they quickly and overwhelmingly voted to continue working toward an ecumenical agreement with the Episcopalians.

    On the same day, the ELCA voted to accept the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, an agreement being considered by the 123 member churches of the Lutheran World Federation. In essence, the agreement says that the theological accusations that the Lutherans and Catholics flung at each other during the time of the Reformation are no longer valid.

    The declaration is intended to create closer ties between the Catholic and Lutheran churches, which split off from each other after Martin Luther declared that humans receive salvation only though God's grace; he believed that the Catholic Church held that salvation could be achieved by doing good works. The Catholic Church's Council of Trent went on to condemn certain doctrines which it believed Lutherans held, and for many centuries Lutherans and Catholics remained bitter enemies.

    Brother Jeffery Gros, an ecumenical representative for U.S. Catholic bishops, said that chances were good that the Catholic Church would approve the agreement.. "We have no problem with this proposal," he said. "Roman Catholics today are not interested in what the Council of Trent said. Our theological reference is now Vatican II. The spirit of that Council is very much in tune with the Joint Declaration."

    The Rev. Harold C. Skillrud believed that the same was true on the Lutheran side. "As a youth I played basketball in a Roman Catholic school gymnasium," he said. "Every time the local priest looked in, I instinctively took the Lutheran pin off my sweater and hid it in my pocket. Thankfully, those days are past."

    The Rev. Franklin Fry commented after the vote, "Tell a 70-year-old hard-core confessional Lutheran like me this would happen in my lifetime and you'd have a tough sell making me believe it. But it's happening, and the Holy Spirit is taking my breath away."

    Perhaps the most important action of any denomination this summer was the ELCA's decision to ratify A Formula of Agreement, a proposal for full communion between the Lutherans and three Reformed churches: the Reformed Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and the United Church of Christ (UCC). The proposal had been accepted by the national assemblies of the Reformed churches earlier in the summer; it now awaits approval by the regional units of the Presbyterian Church, approval which may take until spring. The ELCA approval, though, heartened supporters of the agreement.

    Just as at the UCC's July meeting, much of the discussion centered around the ELCA's difference of opinion with the UCC over whether actively homosexual ministers should be ordained. The ELCA's difference of opinion with all of the Reformed churches over the nature of communion was also debated.

    The Rev. Aurelia Fule, a Presbyterian minister, said that the "real presence" of Jesus at communion has been discussed in all Lutheran-Reformed dialogues. "Every single time, in the joint statements, Lutherans and Reformed agreed that Christ is truly and really present in the elements [of bread and wine], and in the eating and drinking we do participate in the real presence of Christ," she said. "The only point of disagreement was on how it happens."

    Previous Lutheran-Reformed agreements failed in the same way that Peanuts cartoon character Charlie Brown failed to kick the football after Lucy pulled the ball away from him, said Grand Canyon Synod Bishop Howard Wennes, according to The Lutheran. "Lucy was the Lutheran," he added. "Let's not pull the ball away this time."

    In the end, the ELCA voted in favor of one of the most significant ecumenical agreements in recent decades. "One road leads from Philadelphia to continued self-absorption and polemic," said President Tim Lull of Pacific Lutheran Seminary before the vote, according to The Lutheran. "The other leads to risk and adventure, with fewer certainties, but with the possibilities of a larger conversation and a renewed gospel witness for our spiritually hungry world."

    Except where otherwise indicated, quotations are from ELCA News.

    Related Articles

    Greenbelt Brief: Local Lutherans and Episcopalians Learn About Each Other (June 1, 1997)

    Related Links

    ELCA Ecumenical Proposals (links to texts)

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    ©1997 Heather Elizabeth Peterson