Hurricanes, housing and the Holocaust

Six years after agreement, varied ministries draw Lutherans, Episcopalians into common mission
December 31, 2005

Candlelight outside Christ Episcopal Church on a dark November evening signaled a remembrance of Kristallnacht, observed annually by the congregation and members of Trinity Lutheran Church, as well as three synagogues, in Reading, Pa.

Through readings, music and prayer, the service recalled the “Night of Broken Glass” in 1938, when mobs and Nazi storm troopers began their assault on the Jews of Germany and Austria. Service participants gathered “to remember that which must never be repeated,” hallowing the memories of those who lost their lives in the Holocaust.

Such joint projects are not unusual as Episcopalians and Lutherans throughout the country live and work in concert in a variety of expressions five years after the agreement, Called to Common Mission,” put the two churches in a relationship of “full communion.”

Christ and Trinity churches share a covenant relationship that dates back even further, to 1985. They share a legacy of joint worship services and social activities. The covenant committee had languished a bit before the Rev. John Francis became rector of Christ Church a year ago. The committee that interviewed him for the call stressed its desire to refresh the covenant, “goosing it back up again,” Francis said.

Noted the Rev. Fred Opalinski, Trinity’s pastor for just over two years, “The more we can do to demonstrate the unity of Christ’s body, the more faithful we are to Christ’s prayer, ‘that all may be one.’ Our covenant agreement for over 20 years has demonstrated ‘one Lord, one baptism, one faith.’ The many shared worship services, ministries, arts festivals and the like have been a vibrant witness to the whole city that far more unites than separates us from one another.”

The annual covenant celebration at Christ Church in September drew 200 people to a choral Eucharist and featured the combined choirs of the two congregations. It was a highlight of the annual Fall Festival of the Arts that involves the whole community in art, music, drama and poetry, all offered “in thanksgiving for the many God-given gifts and talents we experience, enjoy and share.”

Campus camaraderie

The younger generation is also experiencing the results of the Called to Common Mission agreement on college campuses across the nation. Last June, more than 150 Episcopal and Lutheran college chaplains met at the University of Chicago for just the second time in 18 years.

“The success of this event and the constant call from chaplains to have it done again, and soon, has prompted the respective national offices for campus ministries to agree to hold another join conference in June,” said the Rev. Douglas Fenton, staff officer for young adult and higher education ministries.

At San Diego State University, Agape House is the setting for the ecumenical campus ministry of the Rev. Molly Knutson-Keller, an ELCA pastor, and an Episcopal student assistant. Here, the Lutheran-Episcopal campus ministry invites students to experience “unconditional love, unending exploration, and unlimited possibility in Christ.”

Students gather with Methodists and Roman Catholics on campus for a 99-cent supper every Wednesday evening, and then adjourn to Agape House for the weekly “Breathe” service of song, prayer and Holy Communion. “We breathe easy,” said Knutson-Keller. “It’s a relaxed service with a basic order that doesn’t signal either strictly Lutheran or Episcopal tradition.”

An early start

Some parishes have known cooperation from the beginning. In Elizabeth, Colo., two congregations share life together in one church, overlapping almost seamlessly. Elizabeth Lutheran Church and Holy Innocents Episcopal Church are both young, and neither had occupied a church building before they got together.

“It was more economics than ecumenism,” said the Rev. Steven Hartten, the ELCA pastor who serves the combined congregation. Both needed a place to worship.
Holy Innocents began as a mission of the Diocese of Colorado in 1999. Elizabeth Lutheran became a worshipping community authorized by the ELCA’s Rocky Mountain Synod in 1995. Little by little, the two moved their separate worship services to a community center, then to the storefront setting where in 2003 they initiated a single blended Sunday morning service.

They came together in three phases, Hartten said. “First, each worked on their own autonomous efforts. Second, worshipping together brought us together. Third will be the merging of governance.” A year from now, they hope to be incorporated.

About 65 people gather for “traditional but casual worship,” Hartten said. “We’ve grown in community by sharing our worship life. Adapting has been fun; we had no how-to book to follow. Here we stress that you can be who you are, and the people have learned each other’s stories through a series of workshops.

They have moved forward despite fallout from the 2003 General Convention that confirmed the election of New Hampshire’s openly gay bishop. “It was a stumbling block in this conservative area, and for a while the church was a casualty,” Harrten said. “It shouldn’t have been, but it was. There was a feeling of distrust, and some conservative Episcopal members left the congregation.”

But new people have joined the community, and on Sunday it feels like one church, he said. “The only thing we still do separately is pay the bills.” The congregations share a joint mission statement, adopted in 2005: Gather Spiritually -- Onward Joyfully -- Do Faithfully.

Miracle of grace

Another combined congregation, Episcopal-Lutheran Good Shepherd, occupies a new, white church built in a pasture between Galax and Independence, Va. “It’s a miracle of grace,” said the Rev. Harold Morgan, the Episcopal priest who leads the congregation. “People came through, the whole community and friends from all over.” The church was dedicated July 6, 2005.

Good Shepherd serves two counties in Virginia and some neighbors from North Carolina, all within a 30-mile radius. About half its 57 members are Episcopalian, the other half Lutheran. Good Shepherd came together in the early 1990s. Its first rector was an Episcopal priest, the second pastor a Lutheran.

New members have experience in one or the other [denomination], Morgan said, “so the crossover is a natural one. Our churches were right in pursing full communion. Our differences are few; we both come from the Reformation tradition. “The new worship space is flexible,” Morgan said. “It is all on the same level, so everyone will feel welcome. The design is simple and dignified.”

He said the congregation started the process toward a new building by asking, “What do we need to carry out our mission?” Good Shepherd is a combined congregation. “We are not divided; we count everyone as a member,” Morgan said. “We have one governing body called the ‘vestry/council.’ In worship we alternate between the Lutheran Book of Worship and the Book of Common Prayer. We send delegates and voting members to both the synod assembly and the annual diocesan council.”

Resolving confirmation rites

“A question not yet fully worked out by ecumenists involves the rite of confirmation,” Morgan said. Only bishops confirm members in the Episcopal Church, but that’s not so in the Lutheran Church. Morgan’s predecessor, ELCA pastor Robert Walker, confirmed the congregation’s Lutheran children and arranged for Bishop Neff Powell of the Diocese of Southwestern Virginia to confirm the Episcopal children.

Morgan talked it over with Powell and Bishop James Mauney of the ELCA’s Virginia Synod at the outset of his ministry in Galax, adding that he would not be comfortable confirming members. Together they decided that Powell would administer the rite for all the children at Good Shepherd. Mauney preached at the most recent service of confirmation.

In some places, ministries, rather than congregation, are combined. Holy Trinity Episcopal Church and Prince of Peace Lutheran Church made news in Gillette, Wyo., when they made plans to hire one coordinator to work with their youth. The Revs. James McConnell of Holy Trinity and Chad Brucklacher of Prince of Peace said were inspired during a meeting over coffee with other local clergy. “Together, it looked like it was so possible,” McConnell said.

The churches have combined their youth programs, meeting at Prince of Peace for worship and education every Wednesday evening. “We hope that this is a model that other people will emulate,” McConnell said. “We’d rather have a good youth program than be denominationally driven.”

Housing initiative

Seniors are benefiting from the ecumenical impulse, too. Tri-Cities Terrace East in Richland, Wash., provides housing for low-income seniors through the efforts of three congregations working together.

All Saints Episcopal Church, Richland Lutheran Church and members of the former Good Shepherd Evangelical Lutheran Church formed a coalition called Shalom Ecumenical Center. With a grant from the Diocese of Spokane and the help of many volunteers, they developed donated land into a 60-unit senior-housing facility.

“This coalition of congregations has learned the enormous potential for leveraging personal commitment, a small amount of seed money, the generosity of land donors and the cooperation of builders into spectacular projects,” said Bishop Martin Wells of the ELCA’s Eastern Washington-Idaho Synod. “I give thanks for the good will and hard work of our Tri-Cities Lutherans and Episcopalians, responding to the call of common mission.” Next the coalition plans to build housing for developmentally disabled, low-income adults.

Disaster response

Lutheran-Episcopal relationships have been growing stronger in Alabama, Tennessee and Mississippi since 1998 in response to various disasters in the region. Most recently, the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina in Mississippi brought together Lutherans and Episcopalians at four relief sites -- Christus Victor in Ocean Springs, Bethel Lutheran Church in Biloxi, Grace Lutheran Church and Coast Episcopal School in Long Beach -- to provide food, medical services and counseling to tens of thousands of people who escaped the hurricane.

"We continue to be amazed at the variety of ways Lutherans and Episcopalians find to do common witness and mission together,” said Thomas Ferguson, associate deputy of ecumenical and interfaith relations for the Episcopal Church. “One thing about Called to Common Ministry is that it only summarizes what is essential that we agree upon -- it isn't a document big on building bureaucracy and structure.

“CCM trusts that mission will drive organization, and given the many ways this is happening on local, regional, and national levels, we can truly see five years down the road the Spirit is moving in this relationship."