Following close on the heels of their Canadian counterparts, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has given its backing to a plan to establish “full communion” with the (Anglican) Episcopal Church in the United States.
Unlike the Canadians, however, the church-wide assembly of the ELCA approved the idea in August by a measure that was far from unanimous. Just over 69 per cent of delegates voted in favour of a document entitled Called to Common Mission. A two-thirds majority was required for the motion to be passed.
The document, which must also be agreed to next year by the general convention of the Episcopal Church before it can come into force, will not lead to a merger of the two denominations. However, it will mean that they will fully recognize each other’s members, ministries and sacraments, and will be able to exchange clergy.
The ELCA has just under 5.2 million members while the Episcopal Church has about 2.5 million members.
George Anderson, the ELCA presiding bishop, described the vote on full communion with the Episcopal Church, and a separate vote at the assembly on establishing full communion with the Moravian Church, as “a great step forward in our ecumenical understanding.”
The presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, Frank T. Griswold, welcomed the result. “I pray that our response can be positive,” he said, according to a report by the Episcopal News Service. “The 30 long years of conversation and dialogue have come to fruition.”
One of the most controversial aspects of the agreement was the issue of bishops and acceptance by the ELCA of the “historic episcopate,” the idea that bishops should be ordained by other bishops who can trace their succession back to Jesus’ apostles.
Anglican churches traditionally believe that the historic episcopate is a basic element of the church which should be honoured in any scheme for union with other churches. Lutheran churches in some parts of the world embrace the historic episcopate, but many do not.
Opponents of the proposals argued that the ELCA should not be required to accept the historic episcopate.
Two years ago, a similar document, known as the Concordat of Agreement, was accepted by the general convention of the Episcopal Church, but narrowly failed to receive a two-thirds majority in the ELCA church-wide assembly.