The Episcopal Church on Friday approved a historic agreement to establish “full communion” with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
The decision - described by one Episcopal leader as the “major ecumenical event for this century” - paves the way for the denominations to recognize each other’s ministries and begin closer cooperation. The Lutherans will consider the plan at their own meeting next month.
The plan, called the Concordat of Agreement, is not a merger. But it would allow the clergy of one church to celebrate the sacraments in congregations of the other.
Also on Friday, Episcopal clergy and laity at the church’s General Convention overwhelmingly approved resolutions that would make women’s ordination mandatory in every diocese. The church began ordaining women 21 years ago, but bishops in four dioceses - including Fort Worth, Texas - do not ordain women because of a “conscience clause” worked out in 1977. That issue goes to the bishops today.
After the 2.4 million member denomination’s vote on the Concordat, a group sitting in the back of the cavernous convention hall began singing “A Mighty Fortress,” a hymn beloved by Lutherans. As their singing faded, delegates stood and applauded. Episcopal and Lutheran leaders embraced each other on the podium.
What the Lutherans will decide about the plan is less certain. The 5.2 million member group will consider the Concordat during its Churchwide Assembly next month in Philadelphia. Last month, 20 high-powered Lutheran theologians published a paper opposing the plan because they believe it will water down Lutheran identity.
The Concordat proposes that consecration of Episcopal and Lutheran bishops include participants of both churches, effectively integrating Lutherans into what Episcopalians call the “historic episcopate.” And Lutherans would agree to elect bishops for life.
Bishop Ralph Kempski, chairman of the ecumenical committee of the Lutheran conference of bishops, said during a news conference Thursday that he was delighted with the Episcopal decision.
“It has been said in recent years that the ecumenical movement is in winter,” he said. “We must also remember that winter is a time when plants rest. I think now with these actions, we are in an ecumenical springtime.”
Not all Episcopalians were thrilled with the plan.
An Alabama layman said during debate that “Lutherans have agreed to look like us if we will think like them. I fear that the beautiful treasure of Anglicanism will be lost in the vast sea of confessional Protestantism.”
But the Rev. David Veal, chairman of an Episcopal committee that worked on the document, told delegates that “this is the work of the Holy Spirit.”
He likened the agreement to a marriage, in which each partner is unique: “Our goal is not to turn Lutherans into Anglicans, and the Lutheran goal is not to make Lutherans of us. Healthy people propose marriage because they see something good and lovable in the other, and because they want to spend life together.”
xxxx What’s next? Earlier this month, the 1.5 million member United Church of Christ voted to join with three other Protestant denominations in sharing congregations and ministers for the first time since the 16th century. Two of those denominations - the 2.7 million member Presbyterian Church (USA) and the 400,000-member Reformed Church in America - have approved the plan. Next up is the Evangelical Lutheran Church, which votes next month. If the Lutherans go along, the agreement will affect 10 million U.S. Protestants.