For a quarter-century, several American Protestant denominations have agonized over if and when they can join hands in the name of Christian unity.
During the same period, the Lutherans and Presbyterians of Potlatch have operated a joint parish, living out a relationship that some theologians argue is impossible.
“I guess we’re just 25 years ahead of our time,” said John Krebs, 64, a member of the Potlatch Presbyterian Community Church since 1965.
The decades of discussion among Protestant denominations will come to a head this week in Philadelphia, when the General Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America votes on several historic agreements that, if passed, will unite 12.3 million Christians.
The Lutherans are the 800-pound gorilla in the process, with 5.2 million members. Other denominations, including the Episcopalians (2.5 million members), the Presbyterians (2.7 million), the Reformed Church in America (400,000) and the United Church of Christ (1.5 million), have already passed the measures that will connect them to the Lutheran Church and to each other.
The Lutherans are scheduled to discuss the agreements today and vote Monday. In addition to being the biggest denomination involved, the Lutherans are also the most divided over the issues.
If the agreements are approved, Lutheran pastors would be able to lead services and serve communion in the other churches and vice versa. And members of various denominations would be welcome at each other’s communion tables.
While voting members of the General Assembly have been wringing their hands over theological concessions, the people of Potlatch wonder what the big deal is.
“Necessity sometimes creates unity where, if you have the luxury of not doing it, you won’t,” said Lutheran Bishop Todd Keller, who oversees the Lutheran-Presbyterian arrangement in Potlatch.
Like any small town, the residents of Potlatch are used to getting along despite their differences. There have always been divisions - farmers and townies, loggers and millworkers, natives and the newcomers affiliated with the University of Idaho 17 miles down the road.
“They know they have to get along with each other,” said the Rev. Ken Onstot, who led the two churches for nine years. “It’s a small town and they can’t avoid each other.”
Potlatch was founded as a company town at the turn of the century. It was originally a work camp set up by the Potlatch Lumber Co., which, in order to attract workers, built schools, a doctor’s office, a bank, a store and two churches, one for Protestants and one for Catholics.
The Norwegian Lutherans, however, wanted their own church. Grace Lutheran Church was the only original building in town not erected by the company.
Swedes and other ethnic groups were not welcome, Onstot said. Instead, they joined the Union Church.
In 1940, the company handed control of the company-built Protestant church to its members, who voted to affiliate with the Presbyterian Church. Although the name of the massive brick and wood building was changed to Community Presbyterian Church, it was often referred to as the Old Union Church until it burned during the summer of 1951.
The new building was much smaller, but its identity as a Presbyterian church took hold.
In the early 1970s, the two churches faced dwindling membership and financial crises. Neither could afford to pay a full-time minister.
In one long year of negotiations and votes, the churches hammered out an agreement in which the local Lutheran pastor took on leadership of the Presbyterian church as well.
Through trial and error, they developed systems to make the marriage work. Each step of the way was a painful process for lifelong members who were giving up control and territory.
Since each denomination has a different hiring procedure, they alternate them when choosing new ministers.
Combining Sunday schools meant that Lutheran Sunday-school teachers had to go to the Presbyterian church to teach.
“We have some Lutherans who still say, ‘We don’t have a Sunday School any more,’ ” said the Rev. Tom Ledbetter, an interim Lutheran pastor who leads both churches. “My job here is to provide some tender, loving care and heal some of these hurts before the new guy comes in.”
Ledbetter is also helping to revise the official contract. But most of the details in place are working well, he said.
During the school year, the Presbyterian church holds worship at 9 a.m., then joint Sunday school at 9:45 a.m. Six blocks away, Lutheran worship begins at 11 a.m.
“I think the time of the service determines for most people where they worship in the winter,” said Eileen Ball, who joined the Presbyterian church in 1975, when she went to work for the nearby Forest Service office.
In the summer, the services are combined. The first six weeks are Presbyterian-style, the second six weeks Lutheran-style.
“I appreciate the Lutheran services a lot,” said an older woman after a recent combined service. “I was raised a Swedish Lutheran and I miss it sometimes. It feels good.”
Critics of the unity discussions say the talks in Philadelphia have been hijacked by theologians, leaving the average Christian confused or disinterested.
“When you pass out of the realm of reality and get into emphasizing theological differences, you miss the main point of what we’re about, which is serving Jesus,” said Krebs, the son of a Presbyterian minister.
In Philadelphia, theologians are arguing the nuances of communion - is Jesus really present in the bread and wine as Lutherans insist, or is it a spiritual presence as Presbyterians describe?
In Potlatch, the contrast is perceived in more practical terms. When it comes to communion, Lutherans use wine and unleavened bread, while Presbyterians use grape juice and leavened bread. Lutherans come to the front of the church and kneel, receiving the sacraments directly from clergy. Presbyterians stay in the pews and receive the sacraments from each other.
“The nuances are just that - nuances,” Onstot concluded after his nine years of service to the two churches. “Both Lutherans and (Presbyterians) have to dance a little to explain it, but they are dancing the same dance.”
Other frequently noted differences are traditional and cultural, not theological.
Lutherans have an ordered worship and a loosely structured political hierarchy. Presbyterians have a loosely ordered service but a highly structured political system.
When Onstot interviewed for the job, rather than drill him on the philosophic underpinnings of either faith, his Lutheran interviewers simply asked him if he minded wearing a robe during worship.
It was an eye-opener for him about the difference between theologians and non-theologians.
“That provided a reality check,” he said. “Any discussion of Christian unity ought to address what’s really important to the lives of the people in the pew.”
What the people in the pews in Potlatch would tell the Lutherans voting in Philadelphia is that being in communion with other Christians is difficult but worth the pain.
Krebs, a Presbyterian, was recently asked to be a godfather to a Lutheran child.
“I was very honored that this Lutheran would ask me to do this,” he said. “Those are the ties that we have developed. But it takes a long time to do it.”
Examples like that show the benefits of Christian unity, Onstot said.
“The Lutherans in Potlatch are more like the Presbyterians in Potlatch than they are like the Lutherans in Moscow (Idaho),” Onstot said.
Should the Lutherans fail to pass the measures uniting them with Presbyterians and other Protestants, the two churches in Potlatch will simply continue as they have, with special permission from their regional leaders to share a pastor.
“We’ve had some problems,” said Bobbie Nygaard, one of the oldest Lutherans at church last week. “But we’ll get through them. We can’t afford not to.”
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