NEWS ADVANCE: Unity issues top agenda for ELCA assembly

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c. 1997 Religion News Service

UNDATED _ The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the nation’s largest Lutheran denomination, may be about to change a way of life in Lake Wobegon, the fictional place that time forgot _ and where there are Lutherans and then there are the others _ made famous in Garrison Keillor’s”A Prairie Home Companion.” But if the real-life proposals coming before the ELCA’s Aug. 14-20 Churchwide Assembly in Philadelphia succeed, by the year 2000 the religious landscape of Lake Wobegon will be dramatically altered.

In the meeting some see as having historic similarities with Catholicism’s Second Vatican Council of three decades ago, the 5.2 million-member ELCA will be asked to approve a Concordat of Agreement with the Episcopal Church and a Formula of Agreement with three other bodies _ the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Reformed Church in America and the United Church of Christ.

The agreements, when fully enacted, will open portals of ministry, mission and worship with those four Protestant churches.

And the Catholic Church _ an old adversary that has become a friend if not yet a partner _ will be looking on with special interest as the ELCA votes on an international statement of belief that could lead to Lutherans and Catholics wiping away 450-year-old Reformation-era anathemas that split the two. Additionally, the Lutherans will look at changing their sacramental norms to more closely align the denomination with practices in Catholic and Orthodox traditions.

The ELCA is a likely church body to test ecumenical plans. It came into being in 1987 with a merger of three Lutheran denominations _ the American Lutheran Church, the Lutheran Church in America and the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches _ and it stands as something of a bridge between Catholicism and other Protestant churches.

Earlier this summer, each of the other three denominations approved the Formula of Agreement and the Episcopal Church adopted the Concordat.

The agreements would increase joint worship and allow sharing of ministers but church officials said its real potential is in the development of shared ministries. That includes joint congregations in rural and inner-city areas where many congregations are too weak to support a pastor or ministry on their own.

Included in the Formula of Agreement is the lifting of Reformation-era anathemas that divided Lutherans from Calvinists just as Lutherans were divided from Catholics.

Things look pretty good for Lutheran approval of the Formula of Agreement, according to church officials. But top church observers aren’t so sure about passage of the Concordat.

While the Episcopal Church’s modern liturgy is uncannily similar to the Lutherans, the power and sacramental status of bishops _ the major sticking point of the Concordat _ are quite different.”If either proposal fails, our commitment is to stay in conversation,”said Bishop H. George Anderson, the ELCA’s presiding bishop. “You just can’t erase 30 years of working and growing together.”

The ELCA and the Episcopalians have tilled the groundwork in the pews on the Concordat since 1982, when they both approved an Interim Eucharistic Sharing agreement. It allows for joint worship services provided a host pastor is present. The new full-communion Concordat lifts that provision because each denomination would automatically recognize the ministers of the other. If the Concordat fails, the Interim agreement will continue, Anderson said.

The ELCA’s chief ecumenical officer, the Rev. Daniel Martinsen, said if the assembly approves the agreement,”it would certainly represent a turning point of the American ecumenical movement.” But, he added, “If it’s voted down, we will prepare to rebuild.”

The Lutheran-Episcopal agreement rises or falls on how much power Lutherans are willing to give to their bishops. The title of bishop is relatively new for the church. Adopted first by the old Lutheran Church in America for its synodical presidents _ pastors elected to six-year terms _ it was carried over into the new ELCA.

Under the new proposal, Lutheran bishops would be consecrated for life in joint Episcopal-Lutheran services. They would also, as in the Episcopal tradition, be the only ones to ordain new pastors and could no longer authorize pastors to perform ordinations. Unlike Episcopal bishops, who hold office until they retire, Lutheran bishops would continue to have a set term of office.

As a compromise to Lutherans, the Episcopalians have agreed to automatically accept the validity of all ELCA current ordinations.

According to Anderson and Martinsen, a lethal combination of lingering 17th-century distrust of hierarchical church structures in some Lutheran circles and a lack of understanding about Episcopalians has the ELCA wondering whether the Concordat will fail.

Both agreements require two-thirds approval by the ELCA. But, according to estimates and straw polls by church leaders, a majority of the ELCA’s clergy _ but less than two-thirds _ support the Lutheran-Episcopal Concordat.

Based on those samplings, the Concordat’s fate seems to be in the hands of the laity.


Martinsen said beyond the full-communion proposals, the church will be asked to approve a joint Lutheran-Roman Catholic Statement on the Doctrine of Justification, or how God bestows salvation on the faithful.

If approved, it will become part of an agreement between Lutherans and Catholics on the international level leading to a joint declaration that original Reformation-era Lutheran-Catholic condemnations of one another no longer apply.

As the ELCA is being asked to reach out to other Christians, the Churchwide Assembly also will try to get its own sacraments in order.

A proposed Sacramental Practices Statement suggests an expansion of Holy Communion practices to encompass the more liturgically minded congregations in the diverse church.

For instance, the church would allow infants to participate in Holy Communion, something that is common to Eastern Orthodox churches. According to the Rev. Paul Nelson, the ELCA’s director of worship, nearly 5,400 congregations currently allow fifth graders and older to take Holy Communion. Slightly more than 1,000 hold to the old norm of partaking of Holy Communion only after Confirmation, which occurs about puberty.

Nelson added that nearly 1,800 churches admit children to Holy Communion from the fourth grade down, including 60 that commune infants in their parents arms.


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