Lutheran Bishops Encourage Ecumenical Progress

 — Mar. 20, 199820 mars 1998

WOODLAND HILLS, Calif. (ELCA) — Bishops of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America meeting here March 5-10 adopted a statement encouraging members of the church to “participate in the ongoing development of the revised proposal for full communion” with The Episcopal Church.

The Conference of Bishops’ action expressed gratitude that a first draft of a proposal “is anticipated by early April 1998 … for dialogue and response throughout this church.”

The bishops urged each other to review the draft in light of these questions: How will the proposal serve the mission of the church? Does it clearly set the ministry of bishops in the wider context of the ministry of all baptized Christians? Does it demonstrate Lutheran understanding of the one office of ministry of word and sacrament? Does it present a Lutheran understanding of the historic episcopate for the North American context? What other areas of concern should be addressed?

ELCA “synods, congregations, conferences, congregations, and church college and seminary faculties” are all invited to be involved in the process, according to the bishops’ statement.

The Rev. Daniel F. Martensen, director of the Department for Ecumenical Affairs, said, “Suggestions from the Conference of Bishops are being taken very seriously.”

The Rev. H. George Anderson, presiding bishop of the ELCA, said the team writing the document is making good progress and anticipates releasing a first draft April 7, in time for most ELCA synod assemblies usually held each spring.

Anderson stressed the need for feedback after synod assemblies. The writers need to know “suggested changes, what has been improved, the areas most critical, work that still needs to be done,” he said. He expressed hope that “voting members will take the draft home and their congregations will respond too.”

In 1997 the ELCA narrowly defeated the first effort to establish full communion between the two churches, then “rededicated” itself to work toward that relationship.

Martensen said the attitude of Episcopal leaders has been “patient, puzzled graciousness.”

Martensen said, “The full communion goal cannot be seen just as a matter of outward relationship but as a quest for renewal within our own church.” The ELCA has a chance to “look for weaknesses and errors in our own church,” he said.

“There is deep-rooted resistance to moving down the slope of ecumenism, to redefining our understanding of ministry. We have a responsibility and the capability to meet that challenge,” Martensen said.

The Rev. Mark S. Hanson, bishop of the ELCA’s Saint Paul Area Synod, said, “I think we as a conference need to say something publicly about the tone of the debate we are inviting. I see rigidity and walls going up and organizing in anticipation of a document nobody has yet seen. This is true among those who supported and opposed the original proposal.”

Hanson said, “I fear such posturing might prompt synod assemblies to take straw votes on the draft, possibly derailing the ability of congregations to deal with it. I wish we could get the vast majority of the church to see that this is a new moment for conversation.”

Anderson reported progress in “building the foundation for full communion with the three Reformed churches.” The ELCA, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Reformed Church in America and United Church of Christ are engaged in a process toward full communion. Ratification of the relationship by a majority of presbyteries will be reported to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in June.

The bishops reviewed a document developed by the ELCA Division for Ministry, “Policy and Procedures Related to the Availability of Ordained Ministers between the ELCA and Church Bodies with which there is a Relationship of Full Communion.”

The supply of pastors seeking a first call to ministry is likely to meet only 50 to 60 percent of the need expressed by bishops of the ELCA this year, according to a report presented by Glenndy Sculley. Demand has fluctuated as the needs in congregational ministry have changed and fewer congregations are able to pay the salary of an experienced pastor. Sculley is associate director of the ELCA’s Department for Synodical Relations.

A committee named to review the process of assigning first calls recommended that one bishop from each region visit each of the ELCA’s eight seminaries. They would meet senior seminarians and share information about opportunities in the region they represent, Sculley reported.

The bishops discussed a draft of a pastoral letter for the millennium. They suggested that a variety of resources be offered to congregations to mark the occasion. Anderson will work with the conference’s theological and ethical concerns committee to refine the letter as a teaching tool, and the ELCA will look into providing biblical studies and liturgical materials, possibly to include tree-planting celebrations.

The Rev. Paull E. Spring said the theological and ethical concerns committee, which he chairs, will “explore a process to assist the Conference of Bishops in carrying on a dialog regarding ministry with gay and lesbian persons.”

In small groups the bishops discussed matters related to homosexuality, ministry among gay and lesbian persons, and bishops’ responsibilities with respect to the ELCA’s “Visions and Expectations” and “Guidelines for Discipline” documents.

One group urged a “process that will enable bishops to talk constructively despite vastly different opinions.”

Posted: Mar. 20, 1998 • Permanent link:
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