Churches Realigning Christianity Five American Denominations Take Big Steps This Summer toward Unification

Article excerpt

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.

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. "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. …