Lutherans and Episcopalians Inaugurate Full Communion in Epiphany Service at National Cathedral

Episcopal News Service. January 8, 2001 [2001-3]

James E. Solheim

(ENS) In a long, complex, and glorious Epiphany service that blended powerful elements from both Anglican and Lutheran traditions, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and the Episcopal Church (ECUSA) celebrated a new relationship of full communion at Washington's National Cathedral on January 6. As the world-famous St. Olaf Choir offered a stunning musical introduction to the event, several processions involving almost a thousand participants moved into place. The processions included representatives from all 65 ELCA synods and nearly three-quarters of the Episcopal dioceses in the United States, as well as church officers and staff members, and ecumenical and international guests.

The voices of the 3,500-member congregation swelled in the opening hymn as liturgical leaders moved to a baptismal font in the center of the church. "God is here, as we your people meet to offer praise and prayer, may we find in fuller measure what it is in Christ we share," they sang. "Lord of all, of church and kingdom, in an age of change and doubt, keep us faithful to the gospel, help us to work your purpose out."

Drawing on a sacrament that stands at the core of the theology of both churches, members of the congregation renewed their baptismal vows and received in response a generous sprinkling of water from the huge font "as a sign and reminder of our baptism into the risen life of the Risen Christ."

The ground of communion

In his sermon, Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Frank T. Griswold quoted 16th century reformer Martin Luther, who said that, in the communion of saints formed by baptism, "we are all brothers and sisters so closely united that a closer relationship cannot be conceived, no other society is so deeply rooted, so closely knit."

"How right it is that, as we come together to affirm our call to common mission as two households of faith within the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, we do so within the context of Eucharist," Griswold said, because in that sacrament "all self-seeking love is rooted out," according to Luther. It has been too easy for some to "emphasize our singularities in order to define ourselves over against one another, thereby feeding our ecclesiastical self-love."

On this occasion, Griswold added, "the Eucharist in conjunction with the renewal of our baptismal identity is not just an adjunct-an appropriate ceremonial addition to our call to common mission-but rather is the ground of the communion we share. The Eucharist both summons us and sustains us as we face the future in all its challenge and complexity as well as its possibility."

Griswold ended his sermon by expressing his hope and prayer that full communion "will lead to ever-widening and deepening relationships of shared life and mission with other churches of the Reformation, as well as the Church of Rome and the churches of the East. In the meantime, "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."

The two churches must leave room for some surprises along the way, urged Griswold. "The divine imagination exceeds all our efforts to comprehend and contain it, and what use God will ultimately make of our ecclesiastical arrangements or where they will take us. or require of us in the days ahead, may surprise us all."

After prayers spoken in several languages and led by those who represented the wide diversity of both churches, ELCA Presiding Bishop H. George Anderson presided at the Eucharist.

A stage along the journey

In a news conference held 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 admitted that there continues to be opposition to full communion with ECUSA 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."

"Communion is an organic relationship," Griswold remarked. "It's not a document, nor is it a set of legislative criteria, although documents and legislative criteria do enter into it along the way. My hope and prayer would be that any fears or anxieties that presently exist in either of our communities would be resolved over time through the living of the relationship."

Griswold drew an analogy with the experience of the Episcopal Church concerning the ordination of women. "Over time and through the actual experience of the ministry of ordained women, a great deal of the anxiety simply faded away," he observed, "not because anyone was argued out of something, but we simply lived into a new consciousness. I think that's really the way we need to look at this relationship."

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.

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. 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 three-hour service ended with a return by the presiding bishops to the baptismal font where they intoned the Epiphany blessing. "May Almighty God, who led the Magi by the shining of a star to find the Christ, the Light from Light, lead you also, in your pilgrimage, to find the Lord. May God, who sent the Holy Spirit to rest upon the only-begotten at his baptism in the Jordan River, pour out that Spirit on you who have come to the waters of new birth."

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