New ecumenical officer to focus on Jews, Muslims and Orthodox

December 31, 2000

Now that the Episcopal and Evangelical Lutheran churches are in full communion, the ecumenical office can turn its attention to work that has been simmering on the back burner.

Bishop C. Christopher Epting of the Diocese of Iowa begins as deputy for ecumenical and interfaith relations in April, and he already has a plateful of goals, chief among them relations with Jews, Muslims and the Eastern Orthodox churches. The Rev. Canon David W. Perry, having shepherded Called to Common Mission to fruition after 30 years of dialogue between the Episcopal and Lutheran churches, retired Jan. 31.

Epting, 54, bishop of Iowa since 1989, has served in a variety of ecumenical posts, most recently leading the Episcopal drafting team that assisted in rewriting the full-communion agreement after the Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) narrowly defeated it in 1997. The revision passed the ELCA in 1999 and the Episcopal Church in 2000.

The renewed energy toward interfaith and Orthodox dialogues comes from the presiding bishop's interest. "That seems to be [his] desire at this point," Epting said.

Presiding Bishop Frank T. Griswold, in announcing Epting's appointment, said the Episcopal Church intended to "establish interfaith dialogue and to expand our relations with churches of the East. I can think of no one better suited both by experience and temperament to assume this important ministry on behalf of our church."

That doesn't mean the ELCA will lose importance in the church's eyes, though "we have certainly shifted gears and are into the implementation of Called to Common Mission," he said.

General Convention also called for dialogues with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), continuing churches in the Anglican tradition and evangelical bodies.

Epting believes that relationships with other faith groups are healthy and vibrant on the local level. "The ecumenical movement is alive and well locally, and the grass roots are leading the way," he said, adding that churchgoers often "scratch their heads" at theological disagreements among churches at the national and international level. However, "It's not either-or but both-and," Epting said.

The conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is one reason for increasing dialogue with Jews and Muslims. "Of course, with the Holy Land being again so concerning to us right now, they have great urgency," he said. The Episcopal Church can "fully appreciate the complexity of things there" and recently joined an ecumenical delegation to Israel, the West Bank and Gaza.

Relations with the Russian Orthodox Church have been strengthened in recent years through the suffragan bishop for the armed forces' office. Bishops Richard Grein of the Diocese of New York and Roger White of the Diocese of Milwaukee also have personal relationships with the Russians. The challenge in talks with all Orthodox bodies is women's ordination. Gay and lesbian issues, which generate so much heat in the Episcopal Church, are not "even on their radar screen," Epting said.

Finally, the church will continue to be involved with the Consultation on Church Union (COCU), a group of nine Protestant churches, including several historically black denominations. The historic episcopate is the main stumbling block.

"I was concerned when we had to kind of slow down a bit," Epting said. "We've been involved in fits and starts all along." He said that Called to Common Mission might offer a way to bridge the divisions over it -- the ELCA did not have the historic episcopate until CCM was enacted. The Lutherans are observers at COCU.