By Richard J. Mammana
The Episcopal Church’s 80th General Convention in Baltimore this summer was a watershed moment for relationships of Lutherans and Anglicans around the world. The triennial gathering was delayed by a year because of the global Covid pandemic, but the bicameral legislative process (one house for bishops and another for priests and lay deputies) has been in place since 1785. The General Convention makes decisions about the mission and governance of The Episcopal Church, the official name of which is the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America.
ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton brought prerecorded video greetings to the assembly, wishing God’s blessing on its deliberations. She was joined by Dr. Heinrich Bedford-Strohm of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Bavaria and new communion partners the Rev. Susan C. Johnson of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, and Archbishop Antje Jackelén of the Church of Sweden.
While the video greetings were brief and represented an accommodation to health precautions, they were also a sign of increasing depth and breadth in international Anglican-Lutheran relations. (Previous conventions have had in-person ecumenical guests, observers, preachers, and participants from across the Christian spectrum in addition to the presence of representatives from other religious traditions.)
2022 marks two decades of full communion between the ELCA and The Episcopal Church—a pioneering decision for Christians in the United States that now bears fruit in about two hundred ministry sites including combined church plants, shared facilities, joint camping ministries and governmental advocacy, food pantries, campus ministries, archival work, very regular exchange of pastoral care and preaching, and collaboration in educational initiatives. Resolution A183 celebrated continued cooperation and shared ministries between the ELCA and The Episcopal Church.
Two memorial resolutions honored the contributions of Episcopal priest-ecumenists J. Robert Wright (1936-2022) and William Norgren (1927-2022) for their work in shepherding the dialogues that led to Called to Common Mission and the current full communion relationship. Another resolution continued the mandate for the Lutheran-Episcopal Coordinating Committee, which provides resources for implementation of the full communion between the churches: devotional and educational material, liturgical guides, historical documentation, and asset mapping, in addition to constituting a contact group for relations on the official denominational level.
This year also saw an expansion of Called to Common Mission in the United States and the Waterloo Declaration for Canadian Anglicans and Lutherans by creating a new ecumenical, transnational grouping called Churches Beyond Borders. This is a quadrilateral or four-way relationship among the ELCA, The Episcopal Church, the Anglican Church of Canada, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada. Drawing on a 2018 agreement at Niagara Falls, Ontario, this new full communion family affirms the integrity of the bilateral relationships while committing the four churches to ongoing work on the Doctrine of Discovery, climate change, racial reconciliation, gender justice, and other matters specific to North America. It will have important applications in the 13 American states that border Canada and the six Canadian provinces and one territory that border the United States, where First Nations communities and their life and work can both pre-date and transcend national boundaries.
The Episcopal Church also continued this summer to work toward deeper bonds with international Lutheran bodies—one looking back to 350 years of mutual contact in colonial North America and the other to the ongoing needs of the church for diakonia in refugee and asylee resettlement in modern Europe.
The 2022 General Convention’s acceptance of a relationship of full communion with the Church of Sweden completes proposals begun in the 1850s and contacts that began in the middle 1600s. Swedish colonial churches in Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries offer early examples of shared ministry between Anglicans and Lutherans; most Swedish Lutheran churches of this period had joined The Episcopal Church by the 1840s. Great waves of Swedish immigration to the United States, sometimes without adequate ecclesiastical accompaniment, further intensified the coming-together of these communities and resulted in 45 Swedish-speaking missions of The Episcopal Church throughout the United States. Full communion will facilitate the sharing of clergy and the greater mutual integration of Americans into Swedish church life and vice versa, fulfilling three and a half centuries of life together. It will also give a deeper context for international disaster relief work done in common and with shared partners.
Still one more emerging connection moved forward in Baltimore this summer is The Episcopal Church’s commendation of a proposal entitled “Sharing the Gifts of Communion” (the Augsburg Agreement) with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Bavaria. The background for this agreement is partnership in diaconal ministries in southern Germany by members of the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe and the clergy and leaders of the major local Lutheran landeskirche (regional church). The urgency of this collaboration has intensified in the past five decades along with globalization and Germany’s acceptance of large numbers of refugees from regions of conflict or social oppression. A strong postwar presence of Americans in Germany is part of the explanation for the vitality of Episcopal churches here. The Augsburg Agreement, when accepted by both churches, will make for a new transnational Christian relationship in the further service of the Gospel, rooted in existing regional and international agreements extended to a fresh context in creative ways.
The persistence and proliferation of these Episcopal-Lutheran relationships is notable because of their responsiveness to changing religious and social landscapes in all of the places where they are emerging. Just as global Lutheranism marked a 500th anniversary of gospel freedom in 2017, Anglicans will look to a similar five centuries of our Lutheran-inspired reforms in 1534. The two communities have been in arrangements of mutual communication, occasionally antagonism, and often strong support of one another for all of this time, with a summer of new and renewed connections drawing a bright line under important trajectories of recognition and repair.
My long view of these new horizons in Episcopal-Lutheran relations is that something very good is afoot, and that it will not make headlines in the same way that the earliest movements toward ELCA-Episcopal full communion did. There is no more controversy; all of the General Convention resolutions passed without dissent in two houses famous for their canonical precision and (sometimes partisan) passion. In the short space of twenty years in the American case, strangers now are friends because of one Lord, and for the sake of one world. There has been little news coverage because the decisions generate all light and no heat.
For the other outgrowths of mutual love and recognition, the CCM experience of deep realization that we see ourselves in one another—and that in each other we must also see Jesus Christ—provides an impulse to seek other forms and opportunities of similar connection wherever they can strengthen the church for the healing of the nations. Denver has led us in its way to Waterloo and then to Niagara, and now to Uppsala and Frankfurt by way of Baltimore, and we are glad indeed.