PHILADELPHIA -- The nation's largest Lutheran denomination approved a historic agreement yesterday creating a close relationship with three Reformed churches, but delegates narrowly rejected a similar proposal with the Episcopal Church.
The proposal for closer ties between the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Episcopal Church fell only six votes shy of the two-thirds majority, 690, required for approval. A difference over the role of bishops was the main stumbling block to the agreement.
Other than a few gasps as the results were posted on screens at the Pennsylvania Convention Center, there was no reaction from the more than 1,000 voting members, who immediately after voting began singing the hymn, "The Church's One Foundation."
Even the vote that approved "full communion" -- the exchange of clergy and joint worship -- between the 5.2 million-member Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the three churches in the Reformed tradition was closer than expected. The proposal drew 81 percent of the vote instead of the anticipated unanimous approval. The Reformed churches include the Presbyterian Church USA, the United Church of Christ and the Reformed Church in America.
Lutheran and Episcopal church leaders expressed sadness and disappointment after yesterday's votes on the agreement, or concordat, which came after 28 years of talks.
ELCA Presiding Bishop H. George Anderson said he was shocked at the narrow margin of defeat.
"We set our bar at two-thirds and we didn't make that," he said. "I am hoping we can continue this process by working with our Episcopalian comrades and colleagues to see whether clarification can be achieved and whether we as Lutherans can find a way to come back to the Episcopal Church and say, 'Yes, we're ready.' "
In a written statement, Presiding Bishop Edmond L. Browning of the Episcopal Church said: "It is with sadness that I have learned of the clear decision of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America to reject the proposed Concordat of Agreement that was passed so overwhelmingly by my own church only a month ago. An opportunity was created and I regret that we may have missed it."
Representatives of the three Reformed churches found their own happiness marred by the vote over Episcopalians.
"We find ourselves in the very awkward position of trying to combine a sense of gratitude and joy with a sense of grieving and sorrow," said the Rev. John Thomas, who directes ecumenical affairs for the United Church of Christ.
Anderson, the ELCA presiding bishop, hailed the agreement with the Reformed churches, calling it "a historic step to heal some of the traditional breaches of the Reformation between the
Lutheran tradition and the Calvinists."
But Dr. A. L. Barry, president of The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, which was not a party to any of the proposed agreements, said the ELCA "has made a significant decision that our church considers to be most unfortunate. The ELCA's adoption of full communion with three Reformed churches is another example of how our two churches are growing apart from one another in theological understanding and confessional commitment."
Lutheran and Episcopal church leaders who worked on the concordat said the negative vote does not kill ecumenical efforts between the two churches, but it did represent a significant setback.
"I personally think it's going to be a good quarter-century before we reach this point again," said Lutheran Bishop Paul J. Blom of the Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast Synod, who helped draft the concordat.
The Rev. Daniel Martensen, director of the ELCA department for ecumenical affairs, said much of the opposition to the concordat came from the Upper Midwest, where many communities are predominantly Lutheran. "It is a very heavy concentration of Lutherans in that part of the country, and they haven't had the ecumenical rubbing of elbows" with other denominations that Lutherans living in other parts of the country have had.
The major sticking point in the Lutheran-Episcopal concordat centered on the role of bishops. Lutherans, like their founder, Martin Luther, have always worried that bishops would abuse their authority. Lutheran bishops are appointed for six years and return to the status of pastor after their term expires.
Under the concordat, Lutheran bishops would have been chosen for life, as are Episcopal bishops.
In addition, Episcopal bishops would have participated in the installation of newly elected Lutheran bishops, thus passing on what is called "historic succession," or the ability of Episcopal bishops to trace their ordinations and their authority in an unbroken line to the Apostles.
That tradition of historic succession, which is also held by the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, is too hierarchical for many Lutherans.
During about 90 minutes of debate that led up to yesterday morning's vote, a succession of delegates addressed the assembly. For those opposed, the issue of historic succession of bishops came up repeatedly.
"I have been in prayer over this and my heart is breaking to know my church will change and will be different," said Connie McCallister of the St. Paul, Minn., Synod. "Every fiber of my being, the essence of me, shouts out to say 'no' to the historic [succession]."
The Rev. Robert Mattheis, of the Sierra Pacific Synod in Northern California, said adopting the agreement with the Episcopal Church is important to the church's work in communities that go begging for pastors. For example, he said, in Gualala, Calif., a small town north of San Francisco, "there is no full-time Protestant clergy in the community. We can't sustain a ministry there."
The Churchwide Assembly, which has been meeting here since Thursday, is scheduled to vote today on a joint proposal between Lutherans and Roman Catholics that would erase the theological condemnations that the churches hurled at each other in the 16th century over the question of whether faith alone is sufficient for salvation.
Pub Date: 8/19/97