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 of Delegates--comprised of lay and clergy members--and faces a handful of minor procedural votes before it becomes official on Jan. 1, 2001.
Episcopalians are meeting here through July 15 for their triennial General Convention policy-setting meeting. The church has about 2.5 million members in the United States, compared with 5.2 million members of the 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 the issue of homosexuality and the role of gays and lesbians in the church, but few are willing to admit they are guilty of favoring heterosexuals over gays and lesbians.
The heterosexism measure now faces a vote by the church's House of Deputies, made up of close to 1,000 lay members and priests. If approved there, the measure will go to the 200-member House of Bishops. The church would revisit the issue in 2003.
While sweeping in its theological implications, the measure is also particularly significant as the church prepares to debate whether to create special services to bless same-sex unions. Currently, that decision is left up to local bishops and dioceses, and a church report largely 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 also marks the latest in an ongoing series of historic ecumenical accords between Christian churches.
"Unless the church is ecumenically present, it runs the risk of not being present at all," said Bishop Carolyn Irish of Utah.
The proposal, however, is not without its critics in both the Episcopal and Lutheran churches. The original agreement, drafted by a joint Episcopal-Lutheran team in 1991, was approved by the Episcopal Church in 1997. But several weeks later, the Lutherans turned it down.
The central disagreement is a provision that calls for Lutherans to adopt the historic succession of bishops used by Episcopalians. It would require bishops--and not simply pastors--to be present at all ordinations in both churches.
Lutherans reworked the document--saying only bishops would "regularly" ordain new clergy--and approved it last year at their Churchwide Assembly. The church then sent it to the Episcopalians for a vote this week.
Some Episcopalians say the Lutherans have not wholeheartedly endorsed the historic episcopate, and indeed about 30% of the ELCA's 65 synods have asked for leeway or exemptions in the requirement of bishops at ordinations. Still, the ELCA's hierarchy has said flatly it 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 two churches on ordination.
"If we were involved in premarital counseling between a couple like this, what would we say?" asked retired Bishop Donald Parsons of Quincy, Ill. "Responsibly, we would say, `You need to wait a while and talk a little more until you know what each other's intentions are.'"
The Rt. Rev. Frank Griswold, the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, said both churches have gifts to offer each other. Griswold said the Lutherans would eventually "embrace" the succession of bishops, and Episcopalians could benefit from "the clarity of thought within Lutheranism that is different from the diffuse way Episcopalians do their thinking."
In many ways, the agreement simply codifies already existing informal local agreements between the two churches. The accord would affect local clergy like the Rev. Ray Grieb, a retired Episcopal priest who shepherds a small Episcopal church and a larger Lutheran church in central Nebraska.
The Lutheran and Episcopal bishops of Nebraska allowed Grieb to lead both churches, and under the new agreement Grieb can now hold voting positions in both church assemblies.
The admission would place heterosexism on the same level as institutional and personal discrimination based on race, gender, or class.
Supporters say it is a major step, even for a church that has long been open to gays and lesbians and in some areas ordains them as ministers and blesses same-sex unions.
"Anything that divides us from one another, and thus from God, is sinful," said Bishop Chester Talton, a suffragan bishop in Los Angeles.
The Rev. Ian T. Douglas, a church deputy and professor at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass., said heterosexism is different from homophobia, which implies a fear of homosexuals.
"As a straight white man, I assume I have an unearned backpack of privilege that affords me access and influence at the expense of others," Douglas said.
Still, supporters point out that being heterosexual does not make a person a sinner, just as being white does not necessarily make someone racist.
"Being heterosexual in and of itself is not a sin, but it's the exercise of inordinate power of one group over another that is sinful," Talton said. "And all of this is about unearned power."
The resolution prompted wide support from gay and lesbian factions within the church. Beyond Inclusion, a group advocating the full participation of gays and lesbians in the life of the church, issued a statement saying that what the church says and does has a long ripple effect on society.
"As long as the church perpetuates the evil of heterosexism, the church contributes...to a society in which people perceived to be gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered are fired from their jobs, evicted from their housing, excluded from their families, physically and emotionally harmed, or killed," the group said.