The Episcopal Church's House of Bishops voted overwhelmingly to approve the "Called to Common Mission" agreement that will more closely link the church with the nation's largest Lutheran body.
The accord awaits the approval, likely Saturday, of the 832-member House ofDelegates--comprised of lay and clergy members--and faces a handfulof minor procedural votes before it becomes official on Jan. 1, 2001.
Episcopalians are meeting here through July 15 for their triennialGeneral Convention policy-setting meeting. The church has about 2.5million members in the United States, compared with 5.2 million members ofthe Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
The Episcopal convention was also considering whether the preference given to heterosexuals at the expense of gays and lesbians should be classified as a "sin," along with adultery and taking God's name in vain.
The church is debating a resolution that decries the "sin of heterosexism" and asks for guidance on how to grant both homosexuals and heterosexuals equal footing in the church.
If approved, the church would be the first major Christian denomination to classify heterosexism a sin. Almost every Christian body is polarized by theissue of homosexuality and the role of gays and lesbians in the church,but few are willing to admit they are guilty of favoring heterosexualsover gays and lesbians.
The heterosexism measure now faces a vote by the church's House ofDeputies, made up of close to 1,000 lay members and priests. If approvedthere, the measure will go to the 200-member House of Bishops. Thechurch would revisit the issue in 2003.
While sweeping in its theological implications, the measure is alsoparticularly significant as the church prepares to debate whether tocreate special services to bless same-sex unions. Currently, thatdecision is left up to local bishops and dioceses, and a church reportlargely recommends maintaining the status quo. Changes to the report,however, could be made by the end of next week.
Meanwhile, the agreement with the ELCA--while stopping far short of an outright merger--will allow both churches to combine resources in rural and poor urban areas that have been hit hard by a shortage of clergy. The agreement alsomarks the latest in an ongoing series of historic ecumenical accordsbetween Christian churches.
"Unless the church is ecumenically present, it runs the risk of notbeing present at all," said Bishop Carolyn Irish of Utah.
The proposal, however, is not without its critics in both theEpiscopal and Lutheran churches. The original agreement, drafted by ajoint Episcopal-Lutheran team in 1991, was approved by the EpiscopalChurch in 1997. But several weeks later, the Lutherans turned it down.
The central disagreement is a provision that calls for Lutherans toadopt the historic succession of bishops used by Episcopalians. It wouldrequire bishops--and not simply pastors--to be present at allordinations in both churches.
Lutherans reworked the document--saying only bishops would"regularly" ordain new clergy--and approved it last year at theirChurchwide Assembly. The church then sent it to the Episcopalians for avote this week.
Some Episcopalians say the Lutherans have not wholeheartedlyendorsed the historic episcopate, and indeed about 30% of theELCA's 65 synods have asked for leeway or exemptions in the requirementof bishops at ordinations. Still, the ELCA's hierarchy has said flatlyit will enforce the new policy.
While only a handful of Episcopal bishops opposed the agreement,critics said there still is not enough agreement between the twochurches on ordination.
"If we were involved in premarital counseling between a couple likethis, what would we say?" asked retired Bishop Donald Parsons of Quincy,Ill. "Responsibly, we would say, `You need to wait a while and talk alittle more until you know what each other's intentions are.'"
The Rt. Rev. Frank Griswold, the presiding bishop of the EpiscopalChurch, said both churches have gifts to offer each other. Griswold saidthe Lutherans would eventually "embrace" the succession of bishops, andEpiscopalians could benefit from "the clarity of thought withinLutheranism that is different from the diffuse way Episcopalians dotheir thinking."
In many ways, the agreement simply codifies already existinginformal local agreements between the two churches. The accord wouldaffect local clergy like the Rev. Ray Grieb, a retired Episcopal priestwho shepherds a small Episcopal church and a larger Lutheran church incentral Nebraska.