Members of the Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America culminated 30 years of talks, documents and votes with a celebration of full communion on the Feast of the Epiphany.
The service Jan. 6 at the National Cathedral marked the beginning of full communion between the two Reformation-era churches, which officially began Jan. 1. It was a confirmation and official sealing of their longstanding relationship, especially on the local level. Cooperation has been the rule for many parishes and college ministries, for example, for years.
But the celebration was momentous nonetheless, because it marked a culmination of a decades-old goal: to recognize each other as a true witness to the Gospel and their ministers as authentic servants in Christ's church. "Knit together in the communion of the Holy Spirit, which is to share God's own trinitarian life, we are as unable to say to one another, as an eye is to say to a hand, 'I have no need of you,' without doing violence to the integrity of the body," said Presiding Bishop Frank T. Griswold in his sermon.
He then quoted Martin Luther: "In the communion of saints we are all brothers and sisters so closely united that a closer relationship cannot be conceived." Presiding Bishop H. George Anderson of the ELCA was chief celebrant, assisted by an Episcopal deacon, the Rev. Ernestina Campbell of Sacramento, Calif., and a lay woman, Addie Butler, who also serves as vice president of the ELCA.
Grand and glorious
The service was a blend of Lutheran and Episcopal traditions and participants, beginning with the St. Olaf Choir's magnificent singing during the gathering. The nationally known choir hails from St. Olaf College, a Lutheran college in Northfield, Minn.
The opening procession, in which bishops, clergy and lay people entered together, included representatives from all 65 ELCA synods and nearly three-quarters of the Episcopal dioceses, as well as church officers and staff members and ecumenical and international guests.
While large in scope, the service was arranged so that all 3,500 members of the congregation were involved. Ministers moved about sprinkling everyone with water from the baptismal font and Communion stations were set up throughout the cathedral.
The liturgy did not include any symbolic marking of the beginning of full communion, such as the exchange of chalices at General Convention -- the service itself was the symbol of the new relationship, focusing on renewal of baptismal vows, the word and the Eucharist.
The parts of the liturgy were noted in the service leaflet simply as "Gathering," "Word," "Meal" and "Sending." Both the baptismal vows and liturgy of the Eucharist were taken from the Book of Common Prayer.
The service also highlighted the churches' diversity. The prayers of the people, led by Butler, were spoken in Spanish, English, Ojibwa, Chinese, Latvian and German.
In his sermon, Griswold emphasized both the importance of celebrating by sharing Christ's body and blood and the need for continual self-searching by both bodies:
"How easy it is, particularly as activist North Americans, focusing our pursuit of mission on the promotion of justice, peace and love, to overlook the centrality of prayer and worship, and to see the proclamation of the Gospel as directed toward others and fully accomplished with respect to ourselves. And yet we all stand in constant need of evangelization both personally and as ecclesial households.
"Reformation is not a past event, but a continual process whereby the church is conformed in her members to the paschal pattern of Christ's dying and rising over and over again," Griswold said. He continued by calling reformation "lifelong conversion, lifelong repentance: making room for 'the boundless riches of Christ' and 'the wisdom of God in all its rich variety,' which, because of our stony, fearful and defensive hearts, strain and stretch us to the breaking point, in order that the word of Christ may dwell in us richly in all its fresh and freedom-giving truth."
Griswold ended his sermon by drawing an analogy with the Magi, whose journey into the unknown and arrival at the manger is celebrated on Epiphany. "And so it is that we must leave home and follow the star. To be sure there is room in our saddlebags for the Augsburg Confession and the Book of Common Prayer, but a great deal will have to be left behind -- particularly attitudes and self-perceptions which keep us from joyfully welcoming one another as brothers and sisters in the communion of the Holy Spirit, and from opening ourselves to the gifts of grace and truth to be found in one another's church."
In a news conference the day before the service, Griswold and Anderson cautioned that the agreement is only a step in a much longer process. "Entering into full communion is a stage along the way that has already been established," said Griswold, noting that "a great deal has been done between our two churches both nationally and locally," and that the Epiphany liturgy "simply marks a stage in a relationship that has already begun, the formal liturgical recognition and beginning of a long process of growing together, sharing together, and trying to respond out of our two traditions together to God's call to minister to a broken world."
Anderson said, "One of the gifts full communion brings is the opportunity to discover gifts that each of the churches have, which can be used to share with the other. In my view, [full communion] is one example of God's continued gathering of God's people."
Anderson admitted that there continues to be opposition to full communion among some Lutherans, and "that is one of the things that I'm hoping we can address, first by demonstrating that the process of full communion and what it means will not bring some of the fearful consequences that some of our folks are assuming, and secondly, that we can work with them to try to make this relationship one that they also will see as God-pleasing and ultimately for the good of the whole church of Christ."
Asked if a full-scale merger was ever possible in the future between the two denominations, Griswold replied, "What remains to happen in the future, I would not begin to anticipate. All I know is that God is a God of surprises, and often our tidy little plans get smashed and transformed in ways well past our imagining."
It helps, he said, that "we are both liturgical traditions, which means that we share a heritage that is quite similar. Therefore our capacity to find ourselves at home in one another's liturgies is almost immediate. Some of the ways in which we structure the internal life of the church offer some divergence, and that's precisely what Called to Common Mission seeks to provide for and in some ways overcome as we look to the future."
The agreement commits both churches to share mission strategy wherever possible and permits the interchangeability of clergy. It also envisions sharing the historic episcopate by including bishops of both churches in future consecrations and installations of bishops. It was approved by the ELCA's Churchwide Assembly in 1999 and by last year's General Convention. Called to Common Mission was revised by the Lutherans after their assembly rejected a previous version in 1997. The Episcopal Church suspended its requirement that clergy be ordained by a laying-on of hands in order to recognize Lutheran clergy as authentic ministers of the gospel.
Opposition to the agreement in the ELCA was organized into the WordAlone Network, which maintains that bringing Lutheran bishops into the historic episcopate, as the document requires, violates the principle that the Gospel is sufficient for unity.
Let Jesus reign
At a dinner for ecumenical and international guests the night before the service, Anderson expressed appreciation for a presence that "reminds us that this occasion is embedded in a much wider movement."
The Rev. Ishmael Noko, general secretary of the Lutheran World Federation, said that despite whatever fears Lutherans and Anglicans may have had, "this event is a deeply spiritual one that boldly reaches out," harvesting the results of long and patient dialogue.
The Rev. Canon John Peterson, secretary general of the Anglican Communion, said that the occasion was "one of those holy moments" in the life of the church. In keeping with the Epiphany theme, he said, "It is time to unwrap the swaddling clothes and let Jesus Christ reign in our lives."
The ELCA, based in Chicago, has 5.15 million members and about 11,000 congregations across the United States and Caribbean. The Episcopal Church, based in New York, has 2.4 million members in 7,500 congregations.
Those attending the service were living proof that Lutheran-Episcopal cooperation is already common in parts of the country.
"In Chinatown we already work closely together," said Peter Ng of New York, who prayed in Chinese as an intercessor during the prayers of the people. He said the two faith groups hold joint services of lessons and carols as well as cooperating in social service projects. The Roman Catholics join the Protestants in an annual community health fair, he said.
"I don't see [an] immediate impact but I think it will make people feel more comfortable in time to work together more closely," said Ng.
Jason Yelder of Buffalo, N.Y., past president of the Lutheran Youth Organization in his synod, sees opportunities, too. "I think it's going to help us serve more kids' interests," said Yelder, a student at Daemen College in Amherst, N.Y. He has attended Episcopal Happening weekends, as well as a Christian education conference called the Niagara Falls Gathering.
Bishop Leo Frade of the Episcopal Diocese of Southeast Florida said there were numerous opportunities for his diocese and the Lutheran synod to unify their mission work with Hispanics and Haitians in Miami and to cooperate in other social-development projects. "We're responsible to Christ to be united in action as well as words," he said.
"It's a tremendously historic time for us as church partners," said the Rev. Doyle Turner, an Episcopal priest and Objiwa from the White Earth Tribal Council in Waubun, Minn., where four Episcopal and six Lutheran congregations serve 6,000 people in the sparsely populated area.
"It's moving us closer to the one spirit of Christ," said Turner, who, as an intercessor at the service's prayers of the people, prayed in Ojibwa.