Four Churches Unite Under One Steeple
Lutheran pact with other Protestants marks progress and setback for Christian unity
(Page 2 of 2)
The Concordat plan, for example, was designed in large part to first broadly unify the churches and then to work out crucial theological differences along the way.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
But the opponents of this approach in the Lutheran Church were able to convince enough of their fellow members that the proposal smoothed over and ignored too many key differences among the churches in the effort to achieve union.
"I hope we see an ecumenical approach in the future that first honestly confronts our questions regarding the word and the gospel, and allows a direction to emerge from that engagement," says David Tiede, president of Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minn., which trains about a third of all Lutheran pastors. "I'm troubled by an approach in which you decide ahead of time where you want to go, and then make the proposal fit that plan."
By contrast, the "Formula of Agreement," as the communion between the Lutheran and Reformed churches is known as, started first with basic disagreements over issues like the eucharist, also known as the Lord's Supper. Lutherans believe that Christ is actually present in the elements of bread and wine that are shared in the communion, while Reformed churches regard Christ to be present in a more spiritual sense. But the two sides were able to agree on the presence of Christ, in some form.
A strong undercurrent inside the Lutheran church wants the denomination to begin to prepare the way for an eventual rapproachment with the Roman Catholic church. For them, accepting the Episcopal Church's view of the "historic episcopate" is a key step toward that goal.
Battle over bishops
For Episcopals, that episcopate is affirmed by the laying on of hands during the ordination of bishops and confers an apostolic succession dating to the early church. It is considered a fundamental part of Anglican ties to Catholics.
"The Lutheran vote is a great step forward for ecumenism," says UCC theologian Gabriel Fackre, who helped draft the agreement. "But it also shows that the major Reformation church body in this country is not yet ready to make a step toward a wider, institutionally based Catholicism."
In some ways, the Lutheran meeting highlighted a clash between cultures and visions inside the church - a contrast between national church officials who are ecumenically oriented and a more egalitarian brand of Lutheran typically found in the Scandinavian-derived upper Midwest.
Many officials and church members played down the divisions among Lutherans, a famously genial group. Yet strains were evident as dozens of delegates voiced concerns, mainly over the Concordat, during three days of debate. "I've been to three church wide assemblies," says Brad Jenson of the Northeastern Minnesota Synod, "but I've never seen a house so divided. Is it necessary to divide the church to advance ecumenism."
WHAT THE AGREEMENT MEANS IN THE PEWS
The pact between the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and three Reformed churches will change some centuries-old traditions:
* Clergy are interchangeable in the four churches. A church of one faith can hire a minister of another, for example, or a Lutheran and a Presbyterian church may elect to share a single pastor.
* The churches can collaborate in missionary work and service projects, such as soup kitchens or shelters.
* Each denomination - the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Reformed Church in America, the United Church of Christ, and the Evangelical Lutherans - keeps its own name and identity.
* Each denomination recognizes the validity of the others' practice of the sacrament. A Lutheran pastor can preside over the sacrament at a United Church of Christ without a minister of that faith being present.