Bridging the schism between denominations

Longtime Christian combatants lay aside their historical differences in the name of ecumenism.


November 05, 2000|By John Rivera | John Rivera,Sun Staff

If you listen to humorist Garrison Keillor's weekly tales from Lake Wobegon, a staple of his long-running radio show "A Prairie Home Companion," you know all about Lutherans: those pale, stoic Midwestern Scandinavian-Americans not given to outward displays of emotion but with a propensity for potluck suppers featuring tuna noodle casserole and Jell-O with cottage cheese.

But Bishop H. George Anderson, who has led the nation's largest body of Lutherans for the past five years, says that more and more, the joke is on Keillor.

For one thing, Lutherans are not all Midwesterners, he says -- there's a large contingent in Pennsylvania, for example. And although still about 97 percent are white, there are signs of growing diversity.

"The fastest-growing elements within our church are the Hispanic and Asian population. Our Northern European component is decreasing," said Anderson, who stopped in Baltimore this month to preside over the installation of Bishop Henry Gerard Knoche of the church's 96,000-member Dela-ware-Maryland Synod. It's a trend that's affecting even Lutheran joke-telling, he says.

"It's no longer possible at a Churchwide Assembly, for example, to talk just about Scandinavian humor because we have so many other traditions represented as well," he said. "I think we are trying to adapt to and be welcoming to other kinds of worship traditions than the Bach and stained glass of the past."

Anderson, a native of Los Angeles and historian by training who served as president of a seminary in South Carolina and a college in Iowa, will retire after next year's Churchwide Assembly, a meeting held every two years to set policy for the 5.2 million-member Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church was formed in 1987--- the result of a merger of the Lutheran Church in America, the American Lutheran Church and the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches -- making it the sixth-largest Christian denomination in the country. Anderson is the second presiding bishop of the merged body.

(It doesn't include several other, mostly more conservative, Lutheran bodies, including the 2.6-million member Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, and the 411,000-member Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod.)

During Anderson's tenure, the Evangelical Lutheran Church has embarked on an extraordinary outreach to other Christian churches. Efforts at dialogue have resulted in agreements for "full communion" between his church and the Moravian, the Reformed Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the United Church of Christ and the Episcopal Church USA. Communion does not mean the churches are merging, but acknowledging that doctrinal differences between two denominations need not completely divide them.

Shepherd of togetherness

His most difficult task in this area was shepherding the agreement between Lutherans and Episcopalians, which was approved at last year's Churchwide Assembly and will go into effect in January. Some church members were leery of accepting the Episcopal tradition of the "historic episcopate," tracing the lineage of bishops in an unbroken line to the early church. To them, this smacked of a triumphalism and a church aristocracy that their founder, Martin Luther, had rejected in the Reformation.

Anderson, whose genteel manner falls somewhere between professorial and grandfatherly, was able to soothe the fears of enough church members for its passage.

"There are many people who think it will have a lot of damaging effects," he said, acknowledging some lingering fears among Lutherans. "But my view is that ... the idea that we will somehow become a much more hierarchical church doesn't understand either the way the Episcopal Church works or our own tradition and our own ability to maintain the way we have governed ourselves."

Beyond those milestones, the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church last year signed an agreement on the theological argument on salvation -- justification by faith vs. the importance of works -- that started the Reformation, the 16th-century movement in Western Europe that resulted in the establishment of the Protestant churches.

Anderson sees these ecumenical agreements as a highlight of his tenure.

"I feel the bringing into port of the ecumenical agreements ... has been a great satisfaction," he said. "I believe they will lay the foundation for much good work in the future."

Anderson said he believes it is the challenges of modern society that are bringing Christian churches together in a common mission.

"I think what's driving this is that we recognize today the issues we face as churches are immense: social inequality, the gap between the rich and the poor, the pluralism of our country, mobility. All of these elements tend to make society more fluid and make our old ways of denominational identity difficult to maintain.

"So we have seen that we actually have much more in common with many of the other Christian bodies than we are different from them."

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