Lutheran Ecumenism a Focus of Christian Unity Workshop

 — May 14, 199914 mai 1999

ROCHESTER, N.Y. (ELCA) — Many of the speakers here May 3-6 for the 36th annual National Workshop on Christian Unity discussed various ecumenical relationships in which the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) finds itself. About 50 ELCA members were among the 400 ecumenical officers and representatives from a number of Christian denominations in attendance.

The ELCA entered into “full communion” with three churches of the Reformed tradition — the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Reformed Church in America and United Church of Christ — in 1997. That year the ELCA approved a Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification with the Roman Catholic Church which awaits international acceptance.

Full communion is a common confessing of the Christian faith; a mutual recognition of Baptism and a sharing of the Lord’s Supper, allowing for joint worship and an exchangeability of members; a mutual recognition and availability of ordained ministers to the service of all members of churches in full communion, subject only but always to the disciplinary regulations of the other churches; a common commitment to evangelism, witness and service; a means of common decision making on critical common issues of faith and life; and a mutual lifting of any condemnations that exist between churches.

Lutherans rejected a proposal for full communion with The Episcopal Church in 1997 and are now considering an alternative proposal. The ELCA will act this year also on a proposal for full communion with the Moravian Church in America.

The ELCA is involved in dialogues with Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches in the United States, and it is renewing talks with the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the United Methodist Church. The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod begins formal discussions with the ELCA in June.

The ELCA is an active member of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. (NCC), Lutheran World Federation and World Council of Churches (WCC).

The Rev. John H. Thomas, assistant to the president for ecumenical concerns, United Church of Christ, addressed a “Lutheran-Reformed Celebration of Full Communion” at Rochester’s Downtown United Presbyterian Church. To illustrate the promise of the new relationship, he built on the theme of a popular television program, “This Old House,” in which workers fix up a different home each week.

God is constantly renewing the Church, said Thomas. “There is something chosen and precious about this old house … this community of Christ,” he said. “This precious house is also given a precious vocation” … to announce the gospel.

Thomas noted that the Church is structurally sound, built on the foundation of a lively faith in Jesus Christ. We are “not called to create … but to renovate, renew and transform this old house,” he said. This is not “historic preservation.”

The Vatican and Lutheran World Federation (LWF) are on the verge of signing the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, said the Rev. John F. Hotchkin, executive secretary of the secretariat for ecumenical and interreligious affairs, National Council of Catholic Bishops, United States Catholic Conference.

The declaration builds on dialogues conducted in the United States and around the world to state a basic understanding Lutherans and Roman Catholics have regarding a doctrine at the center of the churches’ historic dispute, and it said related condemnations the churches exchanged in the 16th century no longer apply.

Hotchkin said churches often define their identities by their differences and a statement of consensus may threaten those identities. He called the document “a journey into the very core of our differences” to find the churches’ consensus about the doctrine of justification.

Dr. Donna Geenaert, SC, ecumenical director for the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, described methods being used with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada to study the Joint Declaration in congregations across Canada.

Two Lutherans and two Roman Catholics in each of 12 Canadian cities conduct local dialogues, said Geenaert. Those 48 people meet annually with those involved in a national dialogue.

The local dialogues help the churches explain the results of national and international dialogues through bulletin inserts, videos and “living room dialogues.” Geenaert said the future of the dialogues is unclear, but the two churches “work together with a greater sense of freedom after declaring the condemnations no longer apply.”

In August the ELCA Churchwide Assembly will vote on a Lutheran proposal for full communion with the Episcopal Church, “Called to Common Mission.” Some Lutherans oppose the proposal because the ELCA would incorporate the “historic episcopate” of the Episcopal Church; they feel that would detract from the authority the gospel gives the office of ministry.

Lutherans and Episcopalians agree on the doctrine of “apostolic succession,” an ongoing faithful proclamation of Christ. Episcopalians bring to the relationship the historic episcopate, a succession of bishops as a sign of unity back to the earliest days of the Christian church.

Episcopalians are not asking Lutherans to accept the historic episcopate as an article of faith, said the Rev. Donald S. Armentrout, an ELCA pastor who is associate dean for academic affairs and professor of church history and dogmatic theology at the Episcopal School of Theology, University of the South, Sewanee, Tenn.

“The historic episcopate is the primary way that the church has organized itself,” Armentrout told members of the Episcopal Diocesan Ecumenical Officers (EDEO) and Lutheran Ecumenical Representatives Network (LERN). Lutherans dropped the historic episcopate in the 16th century because the bishops did not join the German Reformation, not because they opposed the historic episcopate.

“We (U.S. Lutherans) are asking to be reincorporated into the historic episcopate which most of Christendom has,” said Armentrout. “The ELCA is being asked to adopt a sign of apostolicity that is not necessary but may help us in our mission to the world.”

The Rt. Rev. Rustin Kimsey, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Eastern Oregon, related the story of Heppner, Ore., where he licensed a Lutheran pastor to serve a neighboring Episcopal congregation. Lutheran and Episcopal congregations in that area have created a “council of advice” to oversee their relationship, “putting forward the best story about both of our traditions,” he said.

Kimsey said that relationship is an exception which he hopes will be affirmed by the ELCA and Episcopal Church entering into full communion. He said the relationship in Heppner will need to be reevaluated if the current proposal for full communion is rejected.

Members of EDEO and LERN “affirmed their conviction that the unity and mission of the Church are interdependent. That is, they are different sides of the same coin, and that the mission challenges before us will be addressed by our unity,” said a statement drafted from = small-group reports.

“We give thanks to God for leading us to this point, trusting that the Spirit will provide us with the gifts we need to make our full communion a powerful witness to the world,” said the statement.

The Rt. Rev. William Burrill, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Rochester, N.Y., called divisions among Christians “obscene.” “We have got to help our people hear the gospel,” he said, and make Lutherans and Episcopalians as uncomfortable as possible with the obscenity of the divided church.

“The Episcopal Church continues to be deeply committed to work with the ELCA and to pursue full communion,” said the Rev. Ellen Wondra, associate professor of theological studies, Colgate Rochester Divinity School, Rochester, N.Y. She noted little opposition to the current proposal among Episcopalians.

The ELCA Churchwide Assembly in August will also consider a proposal for full communion which the Northern and Southern Provinces of the Moravian Church in America have already approved.

In a seminar on full communion, the Rev. Otto Dreydoppel Jr., director of Moravian studies and assistant professor of church history, Moravian Theological Seminary, Bethlehem, Pa., said Lutheran-Moravian full communion makes sense because of “our shared theologies and parallel histories.”

Dreydoppel said full communion is necessary as a formal witness to the unity of the church catholic. He said Moravians hope full communion with Lutherans will renew the theological foundation of their worship life.

“The theology of the heart” as expressed through liturgy and worship is something Moravians bring to the proposed relationship with Lutherans, said the Rev. Randall R. Lee, associate for bilateral relations and dialogue, ELCA Department for Ecumenical Affairs.

The Rev. Norman A. Hjelm, an ELCA pastor and retired director of the NCC’s Faith and Order Commission, addressed a seminar on ecclesiology — the doctrine of the church — and its relationship to the unity of the Church and the churches. He oversaw an NCC study of ecclesiology and the development of a related statement which the NCC adopted in 1997.

The study asked the NCC’s member churches to study their own self-understanding as “church” and what it is about that self-understanding that has led them to make the ecumenical commitment it takes to join the NCC, said Hjelm. He said, as far as he knew, nothing had been done with the statement.

Hjelm said the statement had some specific recommendations about the churches renewing their ecumenical commitment in celebration of the NCC’s 50th anniversary in the fall of 1999. Another recommendation was to establish joint working groups with Roman Catholics, Pentecostals and Evangelicals, “with the intention of seeing how the ecumenical expression in this country can be made more complete and more inclusive.”

The current director of the NCC’s Faith and Order Commission, the Rev. William G. Rusch, is also an ELCA pastor. He mapped key ecumenical events of the previous 12 months in another seminar.

All the activity around Christian unity in the world belies the view that the churches are in “an ecumenical winter,” said Rusch. He pointed specifically to the WCC’s Eighth Assembly in Harare, Zimbabwe, in December.

Some may define the WCC assembly by what did not happen, Rusch said. There was no significant change in the council’s membership — no significant influx or exodus of churches. There were no significant ecumenical statements and no dominant social issues, he said.

Rusch said two decisions will have a significant effect on the WCC. One was to propose a forum of Christian churches and ecumenical organizations — a table for all churches, even non-members of the WCC, to participate in discussions. The other decision begins conversations toward greater involvement of Orthodox churches in the WCC.

The ecumenical movement is closely tied to a liturgical movement, said the Rev. Eugene L. Brand, distinguished international professor in residence, Trinity Lutheran Seminary, Columbus, Ohio, and former assistant general secretary for ecumenical affairs of the Lutheran World Federation.

“The liturgical movement, like the ecumenical movement, has been concerned with catholicity — that is the wholeness of the church,” said Brand. Churches usually make liturgical changes in cooperation with other church bodies, and those changes usually have effects beyond one church body.

Brand pointed out that the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are common elements of Christian churches. The Lord’s Supper is “an ecumenical event,” though it is recognized and celebrated separately. Baptism is generally recognized across Christian denominations, but it is still celebrated separately.

Christians often say they were baptized Methodist or baptized Catholic, said Brand. “The way we practice Baptism belies what we believe about Baptism,” he said.

Brand recommended that Christian churches in a given city consider returning to the early Christian practice of using a common baptistry, baptizing all new Christians in a single place and possibly using the same worship service.

The National Workshop on Christian Unity is an annual meeting comprised of several ecumenical networks meeting separately and together. The workshop involves Episcopal Diocesan Ecumenical Officers, the Lutheran Ecumenical Representatives Network, the National Association of (Roman and Eastern Catholic) Diocesan Ecumenical Officers, and Ecumenical Colleagues which includes the American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A., Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), United Church of Christ and United Methodist Church.

The next National Workshop on Christian Unity will be held May 15-18, 2000, in Louisville, Ky.

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