Sewanee professor embodies Lutheran-Episcopal Concordat

June 6, 1997

Don Armentrout considers himself a natural to explain and support the proposed Concordat of Agreement between the Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA).

Armentrout is an ordained Lutheran minister who has lived, worked and thrived in an Episcopal setting for 30 years. He has been a professor of church history at the School of Theology at the University of the South since 1967 and is equally at home discussing Martin Luther's 95 Theses or the role of Elizabeth I in the establishment of the Anglican Church.

Armentrout's interest in the Concordat, however, has been from the standpoint of an observer and advocate rather than as a participant in the process of putting the document together.

"I come in at a level of being unscathed and uninvolved, and I can support it honestly and openly without feeling like it was my baby," said Armentrout, who is confident the Concordat will be passed by the conventions of both denominations this summer.

A frequent speaker in Episcopal parishes and at various Episcopal gatherings and events, Armentrout said that he found his predominantly Episcopal audiences "about 99 percent positive" on the Concordat, with more resistance evident in Lutheran audiences.

In general, "lay people both understand and support it," he observed. "Their major concern is why weren't they told about it sooner."

Despite his confidence in the final outcome, he acknowledged that "it may be harder to pass in the ELCA Churchwide Assembly simply because it requires a two-third vote. The Episcopal General Convention requires only a majority."

Strong Lutheran background

Armentrout's Lutheran roots are embedded in his German Lutheran ancestry and were nurtured in a Lutheran home and church in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. His vast store of knowledge about the Episcopal Church, however, was learned on-the-job at the School of Theology.

"I had to read really fast to catch up on the Episcopal Church history and Anglicanism," he said. "I really had to take hold of it on my own."

Armentrout was nearing the end of his last year of doctoral study at Vanderbilt University and didn't have a job lined up when Dean George Alexander of the School of Theology approached him about the possibility of teaching church history for a year. Church history was his first love, and he was sure he wanted to teach rather than go into parish ministry.

"I was lucky to get a job," Armentrout said. "Church history teachers with Ph.Ds were a dime a dozen."

He and his wife, Sue, who works in the university library, went to Sewanee intending to stay a year but never left.

"I don't think I would have been asked to stay if I was a Baptist," Armentrout said with a grin, "but because I was a Lutheran there was no reason not to ask me." Today he is one of three non-Episcopalians on the 11-member faculty.

"I have been treated here as a fully ordained person," he said of Sewanee. "The only thing I cannot do is preside at an Episcopal Eucharist. When the Concordat passes, I can."


A full academic career

Armentrout has held other positions in addition to his teaching duties, and he has written extensively on American church history, including many articles on Episcopal topics. His office is lined with books from floor to ceiling, many of them accessible only by a ladder. Stickers, photographs and posters are attached to almost every available surface.

Armentrout's current writing project is A Concise Encyclopedia of the Episcopal Church that will contain over 3,000 entries. The book is co-authored by the Rev. Dr. Robert Slocum of Marquette University and is to be published by the Church Hymnal Corporation. It will be the first such publication for the Episcopal Church.

Right now, however, the Concordat is keeping Armentrout busy with speaking engagements, primarily at diocesan conventions. He is quick to point out that the Concordat won't bring a merger between the two denominations but rather full communion. And he offers a personal as well as a professional perspective on how Lutherans and Episcopalians can enjoy that communion without giving up their identities, calling it "the most natural development on the ecumenical scene over the past three decades."

Offering his own example, he noted that "I have been doing much of what the Concordat anticipates after being here at the School of Theology for 30 years. It is easy for me as a Lutheran to live in a very strong Episcopal place."

Two of his children are Episcopalians and he was ordained at Otey Memorial Episcopal Church in Sewanee. He generally attends services at Otey rather than at Trinity Lutheran Church in Tullahoma, where he is a member.

"It made good sense to me," he said. "When there's not a local church, the logical place for a Lutheran to go is an Episcopal Church."

In more and more places, he observed, those natural affinities are being institutionalized.

"The Lutheran synod in Kentucky and Indiana has pledged to give $75,000 over the next three years to establish an Episcopal church," he said. "The point is there won't be a Lutheran church there because there's no need for a Lutheran Church there."

With the enhanced ties, he noted, "the Episcopal Church could make the Lutherans more deeply aware of social issues. We, Lutherans, could make you possibly more doctrinally focused."


--Emily McDonald is editor of the East Tennessee Episcopalian, the newspaper of the Diocese of East Tennessee. Sarah Moore, director of church communication for the University of the South at Sewanee, contributed to this article.