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January 7, 2001 Single-Page Format

Episcopalians Inaugurate Alliance With Lutherans


Carol T. Powers for The New York Times
Presiding Bishop Frank T. Griswold III, second from left, the top Episcopal officer, and Presiding Bishop H. George Anderson, right, of the Lutheran Church led a joint service at the National Cathedral.

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WASHINGTON, 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 own clergy.

Now, a Lutheran pastor could serve in an Episcopal church and vice versa, or one pastor could serve several congregations in both denominations.

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 churches.

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.

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