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Lutherans try again with Episcopalians, lift Catholic condemnations

August 20, 1997

PHILADELPHIA (AP) _ The nation’s largest Lutheran church lifted Reformation-era condemnations against the Roman Catholic Church, and decided to try again to establish closer ties with the Episcopal Church.

Delegates to the biennial Churchwide Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America voted 958 to 25 to approve a statement declaring that both Catholics and Lutherans agree all persons depend on the grace of God _ and not human merit _ for their salvation.

Meanwhile, a day after leaving the Episcopal Church at the ecumenical altar, representatives of the 5.2 million-member ELCA also voted 995 to 15 to develop a new plan to share ministry with the Episcopal Church.

Continuing to address the breaches from the great 16th-century divide in Christianity, the church overwhelmingly endorsed a Lutheran-Catholic declaration on justification by faith alone _ the issue at the heart of the Reformation.

In rejecting the stereotypes of the Reformation that Catholics believe they can earn their salvation, the church said 16th-century condemnations of Catholic teachings in Lutheran confessions no longer apply.

``We confess together that all persons depend completely on the saving grace of God for their salvation,″ the statement said.

The 1997 declaration was drawn up by an international group of Catholic and Lutheran theologians. The document is being sent to the 123 member churches of the Lutheran World Federation and the Vatican for its approval.

So far, the two largest Lutheran churches, the ELCA and the Church of Sweden, have endorsed the declaration. The Catholic Church is studying the document, but has not taken action.

``This step could fundamentally change the mood between Lutherans and Roman Catholics, both in this country and worldwide,″ said the Rev. Daniel Martensen, Lutheran ecumenical officer.

The decision ended a day of celebration for Lutheran delegates, who earlier broke out in broad smiles and stood up and applauded the overwhelming vote to continue to pursue ties with the Episcopal Church.

``You have experienced the urgent and heartfelt desire of this assembly to move into full communion with the Episcopal Church,″ Lutheran Presiding Bishop H. George Anderson said in special remarks to Episcopal observers.

In response, the Rev. David Perry, ecumenical officer for the Episcopal Church, said there is hope for eventual unity.

``In God’s time, we all will discover the very, very good news we are all one in Christ,″ he said.

On Monday, representatives of the 5.2 million-member church easily approved a sweeping plan to share clergy and Holy Communion with the Presbyterian Church (USA), United Church of Christ and Reformed Church in America.

But a similar plan with the Episcopal Church fell six votes shy of the required two-thirds majority.

Opponents feared linking with Episcopalians would give too much power to the church hierarchy. Delegates on Tuesday voted 640-397 against reconsidering the unity pact with Episcopalians.

``To reconsider it now would be more divisive. ... Let’s not divide this church any more,″ said Arlen Foss of Worthington, Minn.

Instead, they decided to pursue a two-year process of discussion in churches and seminaries designed to produce a new unity plan for the 1999 Churchwide Assembly.

In discussion at this assembly, differences with the Episcopalians over the role of bishops struck a deep emotional chord among many of the Lutheran delegates.

The Lutheran-Episcopal agreement, which was overwhelmingly passed by the 2.5 million-member Episcopal Church last month, called for churches to recognize the validity of each other’s ordained ministries and participate in the ``historic episcopate,″ an unbroken succession of bishops dating back 2,000 years.

But Lutherans, who elect their bishops for six-year terms, unlike the lifetime tenure of Catholics and Episcopalians, are wary of any step that would further elevate bishops over ordinary church members.

After the vote Monday, delegates somberly sang ``The Church’s One Foundation.″ After voting to renew the dialogue Tuesday, they gave a spirited, joyful rendition of ``Shall We Gather at the River.″

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