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Churches Realigning Christianity

Five American denominations take big steps this summer toward unification

Almost unnoticed outside church circles, five large Protestant denominations are moving this summer toward a historic union. They are voting to share clergy and honor one another's sacraments in a way that would realign Christianity in America, but the votes are replaying bitter disputes over faith that date back to the 16th century.

This past weekend, the Episcopal Church voted overwhelmingly at a national convention to accept an agreement with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, the second largest Lutheran church in the world. Under terms of the pact, clergy could be jointly ordained and could serve in one another's houses of worship, perhaps as soon as October.

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The Episcopal vote raises to four the number of mainline Protestant churches that, since June, have agreed to what is known as "full communion" with the Evangelical Lutherans.

The moves are part of a decades-long effort, representing thousands of meetings and doctrinal papers, which church leaders hope will unify traditions that have long competed for members. Of late, these mainline denominations have been troubled by loss of congregants and influence, and have been riven by moral issues such as homosexuality and abortion.

"The Episcopal church has never done anything like this. It opens the door for a whole new era," says William Franklin, a dean of the General Theological Seminary in New York. "This is the ecumenical event of the 20th century, and the focus now is squarely on the Lutherans."

The Lutherans are expected to vote on both the Episcopal and the Reformed pacts at an Aug. 17 convention in Philadelphia. The event is being billed as a possible turning point for church history and ecumenism in the US, one that could further unite the 13 million liberal Protestants in the five churches.

The Lutherans are in the unusual position of bridging the two largest Protestant traditions: Episcopalians come from the liturgical Church of England, while the other three "Reformed" churches - the United Church of Christ, the Presbyterian Church, and the Reformed Church in America - are part of the diverse Puritan offspring of John Calvin. No formal link, however, is planned between Episcopalians and the Reformed churches.

Disputes of 400 years

But the unification effort is reigniting disputes over faith and theology that date back to the Reformation. Some Lutherans strongly oppose the full communion agreements, particularly the part of the Episcopalian pact that requires a new layer of ecclesiastical oversight in the ordination of Lutheran bishops. The pact requires a two-thirds vote for Lutherans to accept it.

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"This is not a simple little issue ... it involves a significant change in the understanding of church," says Robert Goeser of Walnut Creek, Calif., one of 150 Lutheran theologians and clergy who signed a letter of protest. "In the Episcopal and Roman [Catholic] tradition you are saying the church is only made real by the bishops; we as Lutherans have always said what makes the church is the word, the proclamation of Scriptures. Are we now going to change that?"

Full communion signifies such an agreement between the churches that ministers can preach and administer the sacrament in each other's churches, as well as organize interchurch activities, without being theologically incorrect. If full communion goes through, it would also bring changes such as shared hymnals, prayer books, youth activities, and social outreach.

Ecumenical is a Greek word meaning "the whole inhabited earth," or "the household of God." The US ecumenical movement began in the 1950s, sharing the spirit of the civil rights movement and the hopes for the United Nations.

"Ecumenical efforts began as a grand dream of merger," says Peggy Shriver, a former National Council of Churches official. "People thought the churches could be so comfortable with each other that all barriers would quickly drop."

Advocates say the effects of communion will be felt in the long term, with churches beginning to merge during the next 20 to 50 years. "You might see a Lutheran appointed to a regional board of the UCC [United Church of Christ], to start with," says John Thomas, who oversees ecumenical affairs for the UCC. "We would hope that at all levels people will increasingly interact with each other in their work as Christians."

The language of each agreement was settled before the meetings and could not be amended. During June, it was not clear if all three Reformed churches - representing a total of 5.5 million adherents - would approve the "package deal." Gay ordination in the UCC church seemed likely to split the group, but the issue dissolved when it was agreed that local churches could vote down any minister or pastor.

But the main theological issue, by far, is whether Evangelical Lutherans will accept the Episcopalian concept of the "historic episcopate." Episcopalians believe a "physical line" can be traced from Jesus' apostles to the current church leadership, and those bishops are regarded as authorized successors whose interpretations of the Gospels carry more weight than the views of lay people do. Under the pact with the Episcopalians, Lutheran bishops would be ordained by three Episcopal bishops who are in the historic line, as well as three Lutheran bishops. Episcopalians conceded that current Lutheran bishops would be "grandfathered" into the apostolic line and be able to perform sacraments and ordinations in both churches.

"We aren't saying that ordination in the physical line means that person is guaranteed not to make mistakes," says the Rev. George Mocko, head of the Lutheran synod in Baltimore, who supports the agreement. "But we want to make the unity [that] we say we feel more visible." Advocates, including top Lutheran officials, say the concessions are a forward-looking step at a crucial time of needed unity among all churches.

At the root of the protests

Yet as details of the so-called Concordat of Agreement became more widely understood this spring, protests began. Some Lutherans felt the issue was being "propagandized" by church headquarters and had not had enough debate. A series of letters began, including one by former Minnesota Gov. Albert Quie signed by 160 pastors and bishops. It said the Concordat "proposes to bind us to one ordering of ministry and to an episcopal polity as a condition for the unity of the church. To make these things necessary ... is without warrant in scripture and contrary to our confessions."

Disagreements exist, as well, between the Lutherans and the Reformed churches. Principal among them is a debate about the presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Lutherans tend to believe the "body of Christ" is present in the bread and wine. Reformed churches tend to believe the Holy Spirit or Christ is manifest in the act itself, though not in the actual eucharistic elements.

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