NEWS STORY: Episcopal Bishops Approve `Full Communion’ Agreement With Lutherans

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c. 2000 Religion News Service

DENVER _ Thirty years after it was first proposed, and three years after it was approved, rejected and approved again, the Episcopal Church gave its initial approval to a landmark “full communion” agreement that will allow the sharing of clergy and mission projects with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

The Episcopal Church’s House of Bishops voted overwhelmingly Friday (July 7) to approve the “Called to Common Mission” agreement that will more closely link the church with the nation’s largest Lutheran body.

The accord still needs the approval of the 832-member House of Delegates _ comprised of lay and clergy members _ and faces a handful of minor procedural votes before it becomes official on Jan. 1, 2001.

Episcopalians are meeting here through July 15 for their triennial General Convention policy-setting meeting. The church has about 2.5 million members in the United States, compared to 5.2 million members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

While stopping far short of an outright merger, the agreement will allow both churches to combine resources in rural and poor urban areas that have been hit hard by a shortage of clergy. The agreement also marks the latest in an ongoing series of historic ecumenical accords between Christian churches.

“Unless the church is ecumenically present, it runs the risk of not being present at all,” said Bishop Carolyn Irish of Utah.

The CCM proposal, however, is not without its critics in both the Episcopal and Lutheran churches. The original agreement, drafted by a joint Episcopalian-Lutheran team in 1991, was approved by the Episcopal Church in 1997. But several weeks later, the Lutherans turned it down.

The central disagreement is a provision that calls for Lutherans to adopt the historic succession of bishops used by Episcopalians. It would require bishops _ and not simply pastors _ to be present at all ordinations in both churches.

Lutherans reworked the document _ saying only bishops would “regularly” ordain new clergy _ and approved it last year at their Churchwide Assembly. The church then sent it to the Episcopalians for a vote this week.

Some Episcopalians say the Lutherans have not wholeheartedly endorsed the historic episcopate, and indeed about 30 percent of the ELCA’s 65 synods have asked for leeway or exemptions in the requirement of bishops at ordinations. Still, the ELCA’s hierarchy has said flatly it will enforce the new policy.

While only a handful of Episcopal bishops opposed the agreement, critics said there still is not enough agreement between the two churches on ordination.

“If we were involved in premarital counseling between a couple like this, what would we say?” asked retired Bishop Donald Parsons of Quincy, Ill. “Responsibly, we would say, `You need to wait a while and talk a little more until you know what each other’s intentions are.”’

The Rt. Rev. Frank Griswold, the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, said both churches have gifts to offer each other. Griswold said the Lutherans would eventually “embrace” the succession of bishops, and Episcopalians could benefit from “the clarity of thought within Lutheranism that is different from the diffuse way Episcopalians do their thinking.”

In many ways, the agreement simply codifies already existing informal local agreements between the two churches. The accord would affect local clergy like the Rev. Ray Grieb, a retired Episcopal priest who pastors a small Episcopal church and a larger Lutheran church in central Nebraska.

The Lutheran and Episcopal bishops of Nebraska allowed Grieb to pastor both churches, and under the new agreement, Grieb can now hold voting positions in both church assemblies. He said that although the two churches have different historical backgrounds, they share a common liturgical heritage.

“There’s only a slight different in words, and a slightly larger difference liturgically, but very little would make you uncomfortable if you were an Episcopalian at a Lutheran service or vice versa,” Grieb said.


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