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Lutherans, Episcopalians vow to work on pact, but rejection stands for now

August 19, 1997

PHILADELPHIA (AP) _ A day after narrowly rejecting a plan for closer ties with the Episcopal Church, the nation’s largest Lutheran church decided today to stick by their decision _ at least for now.

Delegates to the biennial Churchwide Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America voted 640 to 397 against reconsideration of the plan _ rejected Monday _ for sharing Communion and clergy with the Episcopal Church.

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

Delegates voted to appoint a committee to develop a proposal for the assembly to consider possibilities for a new agreement with the Episcopal Church. Some delegates said the 5.2 million-member church should be ready to act on a new plan at its 1999 Churchwide Assembly.

The vote Monday came at the same time the Lutherans did approve a similar proposal, to link more closely with Presbyterians and two other major Reformed churches.

After the vote on the Episcopal measure, some supporters wept, some held hands and some put their arms around each other in consolation. The vote was 684 in favor, 351 against, six votes short of the two-thirds majority required for passage.

Leaders of both denominations have vowed to continue working on a pact.

``We came close, and we will continue to work at this. The vote indicates a substantial majority of Lutherans want to have a relationship with the Episcopal church,″ said Presiding Bishop H. George Anderson.

Anderson hoped the church could develop a new plan to present to the Episcopal Church.

``I think the shoe is on our foot at this point,″ he said.

Episcopal Bishop Edward Jones said he was deeply hurt by the vote, but said it would be premature to declare the death of the Episcopal-Lutheran dialogue.

``Maybe the fat lady sang this morning, but she can reopen the question,″ Jones said.

One of the Episcopal authors of the rejected plan was less hopeful.

``The ecumenical opportunity of the century has been lost,″ said the Rev. Robert Wright of General Theological Seminary in New York.

Opponents feared linking with Episcopalians would give too much power to the church hierarchy.

Delegates easily approved the plan to share clergy and Holy Communion with three major Reformed churches _ the 2.7 million-member Presbyterian Church (USA), the 400,000-member Reformed Church in America and the 1.5 million-member United Church of Christ. The vote Monday was 839 to 193, well above the required two-thirds majority. The plan requires only minor further approval.

``It is indeed miraculous that we are at this point of time,″ Anderson said. ``He (God) takes human freedom and has this gentle, consistent pressure and moves us further along the way toward reconciliation.″

During the 16th-century period when the Reformation spread throughout Europe, Lutherans early on split with Reformed groups. The key issue was the understanding of the Eucharist. Similar to Roman Catholics and Episcopalians, Lutherans believe in the objective presence of Christ in the bread and wine of the sacrament. Reformed churches emphasize the presence of Christ in the community gathered by the Holy Spirit.

Supporters of the unity pact said since Reformed churches believe Christ is present in the community celebrating Communion, the theological differences should not continue to separate the churches.

Differences with the Episcopalians over the role of bishops struck a deeper emotional chord among many of the Lutheran delegates.

The Lutheran-Episcopal agreement was passed by the 2.5 million-member Episcopal Church last month. It 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.

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.

``Every fiber of my being shouts out, cries no, to the historic episcopate,″ Connie McCallister of Mendota Heights, Minn., said during Monday’s debate.

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