ST. LOUIS, July 24 (RNS)--The gap between the theologically conservative Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and the more liberal Evangelical Lutheran Church in 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 choose between the ELCA or the LCMS or face removal from LCMS rolls, the 2.6 million-member LCMS will next address the issue of dually aligned schools. A synodical task force recommended that Lutheran-school associations affiliated with both the LCMS and the ELCA be given six years to side with one or the other. The task force's report will be voted on by next year's Missouri Synod convention.

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

The LCMS calls a school with official status a "Recognized Service Organization," 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 of recent ecumenical decisions of the ELCA to look at the impact that this could have on our RSO schools," said the Rev. Ken Schurb, assistant to Missouri 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 status with the Missouri Synod. The report notes loss of RSO status could affect a school's eligibility to call teachers, borrow money from the church bank, and participate in retirement plans.

Of the LCMS's 108 RSO school associations, 34 are made up of both LCMS and ELCA congregations. Of those, seven school associations have formally sought RSO status within the LCMS and Affiliated School status within 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 in Chicago, Seattle Lutheran High School Association, Lutheran High School of South Puget Sound, and Good Shepherd Lutheran School in Simi Valley, Calif.

The ELCA is obviously watching this issue carefully. It's unclear how 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 the recommendation to change ecclesiastical supervision for an RSO to its district (regional governing body) president.

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

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

"For 40 years, Long Island Lutheran has had a pan-Lutheran association of congregations," Hahn said. "And during that time, we've had few if any concerns with that relationship. In fact, it's been a huge 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] congregations participating in RSOs."

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

The task force report quotes Barry as saying that such ELCA decisions "have pushed our two churches further apart, and this is truly a 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 the pastoral office; the application of confessional standards; and the development and use of religion curriculum and teaching materials.

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

The 10-member task force reviewed constitutions, bylaws, and practices of RSO schools, conducted a survey among school associations, and interviewed school association representatives. When asked about non-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 excellence from both church bodies. Long Island Lutheran has twice been recognized with the LCMS's highest education award, most recently in 1999. The ELCA recognized 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 LCMS Board for Congregational Services. Next summer's LCMS convention, to be held in July 2001 in St. Louis, will determine what, if any, steps will be taken.

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