Beliefnet
ST. LOUIS, July 24 (RNS)--The gap between the theologically conservative Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and the more liberal Evangelical Lutheran Churchin America appears to be widening.

At issue is the ecumenical posture of the 5.2 million-member ELCA.

On the heels of requiring dually aligned congregations to choosebetween the ELCA or the LCMS or face removal from LCMS rolls, the2.6 million-member LCMS will next address the issue of dually alignedschools. A synodical task force recommended that Lutheran-schoolassociations affiliated with both the LCMS and the ELCA be given sixyears to side with one or the other. The task force's report will bevoted on by next year's Missouri Synod convention.

"I think this has the potential for seriously damaging theeffectiveness of our ministry to young people and families here in theN.Y. area," said David Hahn, executive director of Long Island LutheranMiddle and High School, one of the schools in question.

The LCMS calls a school with official status a "Recognized ServiceOrganization," or RSO. The ELCA calls its schools "Affiliated Schools."The problem is with schools that want to be both RSO and Affiliated.

"The last convention [1998] said we needed a task force in light ofrecent ecumenical decisions of the ELCA to look at the impact that thiscould have on our RSO schools," said the Rev. Ken Schurb, assistant toMissouri Synod President A.L. Barry, who appointed the task force.

After more than a year of study, the panel has recommended schools"resolve their dual status" by July 1, 2006, or lose their RSO statuswith the Missouri Synod. The report notes loss of RSO status couldaffect a school's eligibility to call teachers, borrow money from thechurch bank, and participate in retirement plans.

Of the LCMS's 108 RSO school associations, 34 are made up of bothLCMS and ELCA congregations. Of those, seven school associations haveformally sought RSO status within the LCMS and Affiliated School statuswithin the ELCA. Long Island Lutheran is one of the seven.

The other six are Cleveland Lutheran High School Association, the Lutheran High School Association of Greater Rockford, Ill., Lutheran High School North inChicago, Seattle Lutheran High School Association, Lutheran High Schoolof South Puget Sound, and Good Shepherd Lutheran School in Simi Valley, Calif.

The ELCA is obviously watching this issue carefully. It's unclearhow the recommendations, if adopted, would affect issues like pensions,loans and staff at RSO schools. But the ELCA's John J. Scibilia,director for schools, is paying particular attention to therecommendation to change ecclesiastical supervision for an RSO to itsdistrict (regional governing body) president.

"That has a potential long-term effect in that the responsibility ofthe schools would be taken away from the local congregations," saidScibilia. And that could affect all 34 associations run by both LCMS andELCA congregations.

Hahn says his school relies on both church bodies. Of the 21congregations that make up Long Island Lutheran's association, 10 areLCMS and 11 are ELCA. The school is at capacity enrollment, with 520students in grades 6 through 12.

"For 40 years, Long Island Lutheran has had a pan-Lutheranassociation of congregations," Hahn said. "And during that time, we'vehad few if any concerns with that relationship. In fact, it's been ahuge blessing in a very diverse area like New York."

But the task force notes that "recent ecumenical directions of the[ELCA] may jeopardize the doctrine of [Missouri Synod] congregationsparticipating in RSOs."

At issue is the ELCA's declaration of full communion with threeReformed church bodies and its acceptance of the Joint Declaration onthe Doctrine of Justification with the Roman Catholic Church. Last year, the ELCA Churchwide Assembly also approved full communion with theEpiscopal Church and the Moravian Church in America.

The task force report quotes Barry as saying that such ELCAdecisions "have pushed our two churches further apart, and this is trulya sad fact."

The panel report said task force members had three areas of concern:the interpretation of Scripture, especially as it relates to creation,abortion, sexual identity, the Lord's Supper, justification, and thepastoral office; the application of confessional standards; and thedevelopment and use of religion curriculum and teaching materials.

"Suppose one of the ELCA churches in one of those schoolassociations begins to be served by a Presbyterian or United Church ofChrist pastor?" Schurb asked.

The 10-member task force reviewed constitutions, bylaws, andpractices of RSO schools, conducted a survey among school associations,and interviewed school association representatives. When asked aboutnon-Lutherans, Schurb said, "To a man, none of them thought that the[Presbyterian or UCC] pastor should conduct chapel at a Lutheran school,but admitted there's nothing on paper to prevent it."

Hahn believes it's ironic his school has won awards for excellencefrom both church bodies. Long Island Lutheran has twice been recognizedwith the LCMS's highest education award, most recently in 1999. The ELCArecognized the school with its highest award in 1998.

"At this point, nobody has to do anything," said Ross Stueber,associate director of the Department of School Ministry of the LCMSBoard for Congregational Services. Next summer's LCMS convention, to beheld in July 2001 in St. Louis, will determine what, if any, steps willbe taken.

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