Four Churches Unite Under One Steeple
Lutheran pact with other Protestants marks progress and setback for Christian unity
For more than three decades the dream of "ecumenism" - described as the "spirit of Christ calling the churches together" - has burned brightly for America's denominational leaders.Skip to next paragraph
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Yet many church members have often begged their leaders just as ardently not to make basic changes to long-held beliefs and traditions without first "trying the spirits."
For American churches, those two impulses came to a dramatic head this week - as a grand plan endorsed by Lutheran officials to unite five Protestant churches ran up against a plucky group of pastors and lay Lutherans from the upper Midwest.
In an emotional meeting that may be the Protestant event of the decade, the largest Lutheran church in the US did vote to unite with three major denominations in a close relationship called "full communion." The four churches, totaling 9 million members, will now share clergy and sacred practices, along with social outreach and resources. The reconciliation reverses separate traditions that date back 450 years to the Reformation.
But in a move that stunned Lutheran leaders, the church's general assembly also narrowly rejected a formal link with the Episcopal Church. The Episcopal pact, the most controversial of the two proposals and the one watched most closely by the Protestant world, would have required Lutherans to accept a new layer of bishops and ceremony. It also would have opened an ecumenical path toward the Roman Catholic side of Christianity - something now blocked, at least for the time being.
"We've taken a historic step to heal a breach of the Reformation between Lutherans and Calvinists," says presiding Bishop George Anderson. "We still need to work on the Anglican side."
Over the past three months, the United Church of Christ, the Presbyterian church, and the Reformed Church of America voted overwhelmingly to join the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America - as did the Episcopalians. This week it all came down to the Lutheran vote - billed as a historic bridge between major parts of the Protestant world.
But church officials had not counted on the grass-roots resistance to the Episcopal plan offered by a small but determined group, many of whom were women pastors, that was largely based in Minnesota - and that enlisted the help of former Minnesota Gov. Albert Quie, a voting member of the assembly.
"Are we going to be classic Lutherans or homogenized Lutherans?" said David Preus, a former Lutheran president. "If we adopt the Concordat [the Episcopal plan] we are giving up our identity as a church that honors a 'priesthood of all believers' in favor of a church where ecclesiastical rank matters more."
In religious terms, the impulse for full communion comes from Jesus' request that the church be all one body. Yet a number of strong practical reasons and human rationales lie behind the ecumenical efforts, too. Many denominations desire more efficient operations. Under the new communion, struggling churches in small towns and rural areas, for example, can share resources or even merge. The move is also seen as creating a stronger community of believers at a time when secular culture seems more materialistic to people living a life of faith.
For years, as well, old-line Protestant leaders have wanted to offer a sizable unified alternative to conservative evangelical lobbies like the Christian Coalition.
The vote Aug. 18 to strike down the Lutheran-Episcopal Concordat may also bring changes to the way in which the larger church community goes about developing ecumenical relations, some observers feel.