WASHINGTON - After more than three decades of debate, the Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America inaugurated an alliance yesterday that will allow them to share clergy members, churches and missionary work.
The agreement on a full-communion relationship stops short of a merger, because each church will retain its own structure and worship style. But the compact, known as "Called to Common Mission," brings together two denominations that have been separated by fundamental differences over the role and authority of bishops.
"We live in an ecumenical age in which many of the historical divisions between Christian bodies are slowly but surely being overcome," said Presiding Bishop Frank T. Griswold III, the Episcopal Church's top officer. "This particular relationship between Lutherans and Episcopalians is part of a larger effort across the Christian world to break down some of the historical walls of division."
Presiding Bishop H. George Anderson of the Evangelical Lutheran Church said: "I know that there is now renewed contact between our church and the Methodist Church, and I believe also the Methodists and the Episcopalians, and the Episcopalians and the Moravians. So on a lot of fronts this model of 'full communion' is going to be explored, and it's a good model, because it helps maintain the diversity within Christendom without the animosity and estrangement."
The alliance could have an immediate effect on struggling Episcopal and Lutheran congregations, especially in inner-city and rural areas that are too small or too poor to afford their own clergy. With this agreement, a Lutheran pastor could serve in an Episcopal church and vice versa, or one pastor could serve several congregations in both denominations.
The two churches could also combine efforts in their campus ministries and seminaries, collaborations that have existed before but will now spread, church leaders said.
After years of debate, the Episcopalians ratified the agreement at their general convention in Denver in July. It was much more contentious for the Lutherans, who approved it in August 1999, after rejecting it two years earlier.
The agreement still has its opponents. A faction of Lutherans said on Friday that they would protest the alliance by refusing to ordain clergy members and install bishops according to the Episcopal Church's standards.
"We will resist the implementation of this agreement," said the Rev. Mark Chaves, executive director of the WordAlone Network, based in New Brighton, Minn., which counts as members 4,000 individuals and 135 congregations.
Lutheran congregations opposed to the accord will form a new association in March, Chaves said. As to whether that association would break away and form a new denomination, he said, "It could, but our hope is it wouldn't lead to that."
The Lutheran and Episcopal churches are close cousins in terms of theology and liturgy, but they had to confront incompatibilities over the role of bishops.
Episcopalians believe that a bishop's spiritual authority stretches in an unbroken line to St. Peter and the origins of Christianity. Episcopal bishops are consecrated by other bishops in a laying-on of hands, and clergy members must be ordained by bishops.
Lutherans have a less hierarchical approach, and regard a bishop as a worthy pastor elected for a six-year term to preside over a large administrative area, or synod. A bishop's installation does not require other bishops or a laying-on of hands.
The agreement requires new Lutheran bishops and clergy members to be ordained by Episcopal bishops in a laying-on of hands. In return, the Episcopal Church has agreed to accept all the current Lutheran pastors and bishops who have not been ordained in the Episcopal tradition.