Jan. 6 — After more than three decades of debate, the Episcopal
Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
inaugurated an alliance today that will allow them to share
clergy members, churches and missionary work.
Bishops and clergy members of both churches, representing a
combined membership of 7.7 million people, joined a festive
procession into Washington National Cathedral today for a
service celebrating the start of what they call a full communion
relationship. The accord 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 long been separated by fundamental
differences over the role and authority of bishops.
In a sign of their shared faith, the presiding bishops of
both churches sprinkled the worshipers with baptismal water
scooped from a common font. Officials of the Roman Catholic,
Methodist, Presbyterian, United Church of Christ and Moravian
churches joined the assembly.
"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 top
Episcopal officer. Presiding Bishop H. George Anderson of the
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
Now, a Lutheran pastor could serve in an Episcopal church and
vice versa, or one pastor could serve several congregations in
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.
As the first hymn from the St. Olaf Choir wafted through the
Cathedral, the Rev. J. Gary Gloster, an Episcopal suffragan
bishop from North Carolina, said in an interview: "We just
really think it's silly to stay apart when we can be together
and do things we can't do separately. Our congregations
understand the need for each other."
The alliance has been painstakingly negotiated in the very
decades when many mainline Protestant denominations have been
shrinking in numbers and influence.
The Episcopal Church has 2.5 million members, down from 3.6
million at its peak in 1965, and 7,400 churches. The Evangelical
Lutheran Church, by contrast, with a membership of 5.15 million
people and 11,000 churches, has shrunk very little since 1987,
when it was formed by the merger of three smaller Lutheran
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.