It's Not a Merger Made in Heaven

TIMES STAFF WRITER

What would they say at Lake Wobegon, Garrison Keillor's mythical town, about the rumblings of change in the Lutheran church? As word spreads of an agreement that says Lutherans can share their clergy with the Episcopalians, so does a deepening fear. The vision of their Lutheran bishops dressed in miters and crimson cloaks or, worse, the prospect of arriving for church to find the pastor is an Episcopal priest, does not sit well with growing numbers within the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Nor does the idea of compromising their own place in the church as members of "the priesthood of all believers."

And so, in an emotional response to what looked to most outsiders like a simple marriage of convenience, Lutheran church members across the country are preparing to challenge the plan.

A small but determined group called Word Alone--the name is a reference to Martin Luther's teaching that Scripture is the highest authority--is scheduled to meet in Phoenix March 25-27. Even though more than two-thirds of the vote at the churchwide Lutheran assembly went in favor of the agreement, known as the Call to Common Mission, and even though it would take a two-thirds majority to rescind it, Word Alone will draft a list of amendments to the original plan. That, and a constitution for a new denomination. If things don't go their way, they will be prepared to break away.

Word Alone began as a Web site for a group of pastors who wanted to talk about the changes. As news of the Call to Common Mission spread, other church members got involved. There are now more than 4,000 registered names. Though they represent a small portion of the more than 10,000 congregations in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Word Alone is gaining support from Lutherans who oppose the new accord but are not about to break away. They call themselves the Loyal Opposition.

Last year the group met for the first time, in Keillor territory--Minnesota. Nine hundred people registered then, and 500 have signed up so far this year. "Ecumenism is great," says Al Quie, a former governor of Minnesota who is one of the founders of the movement. "No one wants to offend anyone, but this new mandate is the straw that broke the camel's back."

Strange, then, that the idea of shared clergy has been in the talk stages for close to a decade. "This conversation is 9 years old," says Los Angeles Lutheran bishop Paul Egertson. News of developments was posted on the church Web site and covered in newsletters. The issue was actually voted on once before, in 1997, but did not pass. The second vote, in 1999, sent it through.

Egertson says the slightly belated clamor is due to overworked pastors who can barely keep up. "Pastors get interested after a decision is made. Then laity says, 'we never knew about this.' "

That was case Sunday night in West Covina when a group of concerned church members met at Christ Lutheran Church to discuss the new accord with their pastor, David Nelson, and visiting pastor David Berkedal of Faith Lutheran Church in San Dimas.

"My perception is, something got railroaded through without us knowing. Why can't we rescind it?" said Don Brandt, one of 40 parishioners who attended.

Implementing interdenominational changes is never as easy as it looks on paper. "For every merger, you get three new churches: the new one and the two that break away," says Martin Marty, professor emeritus of religious history at the University of Chicago.

"If the Episcopalians can convince us to join them. it makes them stronger but us weaker," said Peggy Weeks at Sunday's gathering.

There are about 5 million members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church and about 2 million Episcopalians. Neither group is growing. Both are considered too buttoned-up for most churchgoers today. They don't specialize in the live bands, big crowds and dozens of social services that drive the growth of the most popular churches.

For Gordon Browning, a lifelong Lutheran, every step his church takes toward unity with another is a step away from treasured customs and traditions. "They're cooking us like frogs," he said. "Start slow with cold water and the frogs just lie there, they don't jump out. Pretty soon they're dead."

No one would argue that the two denominations are known for completely different styles. Keillor described some of the differences in a poem for his radio show, "A Prairie Home Companion," based in Minnesota, home to the largest concentration of Lutherans in the country. "I'm a Lutheran" is about one lifetime church member's reaction to the new agreement. Here is a portion of it:

Now I have nothing against Episcopalians

I believe in an open door

I'm sure it's good to get new ideas

But we never did it that way before.

Lutherans have been wary of church hierarchy since Martin Luther tried to reform it in the early 1500s. He saw renegade priests selling tickets to heaven, fathering families despite their vow of celibacy, holding property against church rules. He concluded that man-made institutions, including church governments, are not to be trusted. Only pastors are ordained in the Lutheran church. Bishops serve a six-year elected term.

Episcopal government is more structured, designed after the British monarchy by the church's founder, King Henry VIII. Bishops have more power than priests, priests rank higher than deacons. Episcopalians, too, have an active laity, but for Lutherans, mistrust of the unfamiliar is powerful.

"In effect, the Call to Common Mission says there is a difference between priests and laity," says Hans-Erik Nelson, a St. Paul, Minn., graduate of a Lutheran seminary who is preparing for ordination. "Lay people are the future of the church," says Nelson, a St. Paul native. "We need to reexamine how the church is led."

He won't accept the Episcopal blessing now required for new Lutheran ministers. After four years of preparation for ordination and a lifetime in the Lutheran church, Nelson, 31, is risking it all. "It's possible that will mean I can't be ordained," he says. And he is prepared to leave his denomination. "My first priority is to preach the Gospel, not to be a minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America," he says. "God will take care of me. Where I end up will be God's work."

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Seen as curmudgeons by Lutherans in favor of the Call to Common Mission, the two resistance groups, Word Alone and the Loyal Opposition, plan to fight until the accord is amended. They want all Lutheran clergy to have a choice, whether or not to be ordained into the Episcopal system. Egertson says there may be some accommodation possible concerning seminarians preparing for ordination. But the accord requires that all bishops be ordained in the Episcopal system. "There is no way to concede on that point," he says.

The goal of unity among all Christian churches requires everyone to bend at times, and, in this case, that job went primarily to the Lutherans. "I don't know of anyone in the Episcopal church who is concerned about the agreement," says the Rev. Sam Pascoe, who will be a speaker at the Word Alone conference in Phoenix. "It is the Lutherans who feel they are giving up a lot."

For Pascoe, pastor of Grace Episcopal Church in Orange Park, Fla., the Call to Common Mission is another reminder that the ecumenical movement, aimed at reconciling all Christian denominations, is working very well. But not exactly as envisioned at the start. "The originators hoped for one big church structure," Pascoe says. "But for now, at least, it's the person in the pew who is living out ecumenism." His mother, for example, takes an exercise class in a Methodist church, belongs to the Presbyterian church and attends an interdenominational Bible study class.

Berkedal, of Faith Lutheran Church, agrees. "The goal is unity," he says, "not conformity."

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