It was nearly 500 years ago that Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, setting into motion the Protestant Reformation and a major division of Christianity.
Modern-day Lutherans meeting this week in Philadelphia will vote on whether to adopt three ecumenical agreements that would undo some of that division.
The Churchwide Assembly of the 5.2 million-member Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) will consider agreements with the Episcopal Church, three Reformed churches and the Roman Catholic Church.
Under similar proposals with the Episcopal Church and three Reformed churches, Lutheran clergy could serve in their churches -- and vice versa -- and members could participate in each other's worship services.
The delegates will also vote on a proposal that would erase the theological condemnations that Lutherans and Catholics hurled at each other in the 16th century over what is required for salvation. The agreement was hammered out by a commission made up of members of both churches.
"It's kind of like a conjunction of the planets. Everything seems to be coming together with the Reformed, Catholic and Episcopal churches at the same time," said the Rev. H. George Anderson, presiding bishop of the ELCA.
The nation's second-largest Lutheran denomination, the 2.6 million-member Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, is not a party to any of the agreements.
Although the agreements with the Reformed and Catholic churches seem likely to pass, the concordat or agreement with the Episcopal Church may well be rejected by the Lutheran assembly. Most observers call the vote too close to call. This past spring, 15 of the ELCA's 65 regional synods voted against the concordat.
The sticking point is the change proposed for bishops. In the Episcopal Church, bishops are appointed for life. Part of Martin Luther's reform was aimed at corruption among the bishops, and therefore Lutheran bishops are appointed for six-year terms, becoming pastors at the end of their terms. Under the concordat, Lutheran bishops would be appointed for life.
A more symbolic change would be that three Episcopal bishops would participate in the consecration of new Lutheran bishops, a practice followed in the Episcopal, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches -- symbolically tracing their authority as bishops back to the Apostles.
Anderson said the emphasis on more hierarchy makes some Lutherans nervous: "What are Lutheran bishops going to be, like Episcopalian bishops? Are we going to have more hierarchy in the church than we're used to?"
The Rev. David W. Perry, who coordinates ecumenical relations in the Episcopal Church, said he understands: "I think when people come to know us and how we regard bishops, some of those fears will be dispelled." Episcopal bishops "are not what I would regard as oppressive despots."
In the concordat with the Episcopal Church and the proposed agreement with the Reformed churches -- the Reformed Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the United Church of Christ -- those churches would not merge with the Lutherans, but would enter into "full communion."
That means each church would recognize the validity of the clergy and sacraments of the other, allowing clergy from one church to serve in the other.
The Lutheran-Roman Catholic proposal strikes at the heart of what caused the Reformation: a doctrine known as "justification," which was Luther's belief that human salvation comes through faith alone and not through good works. At the time, the Catholic hierarchy denounced that view and issued what it called "condemnations" of those who followed it. Luther and his disciples responded in kind.
Brother Jeffrey Gros, associate director of ecumenical and interreligious affairs for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the agreement is a key step in the Lutheran-Catholic dialogue.
Beyond the lifting of the condemnations, which are still in effect today, the declaration is a positive statement of "God's free love in Jesus Christ for us given in grace and our response in faith and good works," he said. "It would set much of the history of the 16th century behind us."
The Episcopal Church and the Reformed churches have approved their respective agreements.
Perry, the Episcopal ecumenical coordinator, said he hopes the overwhelming approval the Episcopal Church gave the concordat last month -- it was adopted with just token dissent -- will sway Lutherans who are on the fence. He reluctantly considered the implications if the concordat is rejected.
"I think it will be a sad moment for us," he said. "I don't think that this would be the end of our relationship or the ecumenical ventures in this generation. But I think it will be a very serious pause in the ecumenical journey if this does not pass."
Pub Date: 8/17/97