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It's Not a Merger Made in Heaven

The plan to share clergy with Episcopalians is opposed by a small but growing group of Lutherans.

March 15, 2001|MARY ROURKE | 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.

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