Lutherans address opponents of full communion with Episcopalians

January 13, 2000

Lutheran opponents to a proposal for full communion between the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and the Episcopal Church have organized and demanded that church leaders address their concerns.

About 400 delegates from 21 states gathered in St. Paul last November to organize as Word Alone, arguing that an acceptance of the historic episcopate by Lutherans, a major point in the "Called to Common Mission" (CCM) proposal passed by the ELCA Churchwide Assembly last summer, contradicts the doctrine that the word of God and proper administration of the sacraments are sufficient for salvation. They argue that CCM threatens Lutheran identity, seriously changing the role of bishops and diminishing the role of laity.

The delegates emerged from a series of 45 regional meetings last fall attended by about 2,200 people who have reservations about CCM. More regional meetings are planned, culminating in a national conference in March to determine the shape and direction of the organization.

Although some delegates said they would leave the ELCA if the proposal were implemented, most delegates favored remaining in the ELCA to engage in "active opposition" in an attempt to block implementation of the proposal; they did discuss a number of alternatives. Among the possibilities they discussed were forming a parallel organization with its own roster of clergy and congregations opposing CCM; electing bishops who pledge they won't comply; cutting financial support for the national church.

The Rev. Brad Jenson of Duluth called for formation of a new Lutheran church "which is solidly confessional" and a new seminary to prepare clergy for "non-episcopal ordinations."

"We will resist, we will not comply," said the Rev. Roger Eigenfeld of Mahtomedi, Minnesota, elected to chair the organization's steering committee. "We feel the church has walked away from us and is not listening." He brushed aside proposals for a new church, calling them "incredibly premature and totally unnecessary at this point." Yet he admitted that "eventually we're going to have to decide if it's worth the effort to fight for the church or to go our own way."

Addressing concerns

Presiding Bishop H. George Anderson of the ELCA met with Eigenfeld in December at the church offices in Chicago to discuss the issue. Both expressed eagerness to foster genuine dialogue and avoid further confrontation. Eigenfeld said that many Word Alone members aren't sure there is a place for them in the ELCA. "If this church is going to wait around for two years to take care of a sore, it's too late," he said referring to the biennial Churchwide Assembly's next meeting.

In adopting CCM the church made a serious decision, Anderson pointed out, knowing that there would be opposition. "As a church, we are concerned about those people and their consciences. We are prepared to listen, but we are not at the point that we will grant exceptions to an action the church has taken," he said.

Anderson attended regional meetings of opponents last fall, describing them as "tough." He said, "These are really good people and they are really mad. We must find a way to address their underlying concerns."

"We are challenged to take action in living into full communion with other churches which will move us onto terrain yet unexplored," said the Rev. Daniel Martensen, director of the ELCA's Department for Ecumenical Affairs following a meeting last fall. The ELCA is in full communion with four other churches--the Moravian, Presbyterian Church (USA), Reformed and United Church of Christ.


-James Solheim is director of the Episcopal Church's Office of News and Information.