Christian ecumenism, both in the United States and elsewhere, could receive a significant boost as the result of a proposed agreement between the Episcopal Church in the USA and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) for full communion.

Adoption of the proposal, the result of 20 years of Episcopal-Lutheran discussions, would mean that the "churches become interdependent while remaining autonomous," according to a joint statement released in January by Bishop Herbert Chilstrom of the ELCA and Presiding Bishop Edmond Browning of the Episcopal Church."We are not talking of merging the churches, just recognizing one another fully," Bishop Chilstrom says. "I don't sense any enthusiasm for organic changes. It means we could go back and forth for communion and could exchange clergy."

The "Concordat of Agreement" represents a compromise over the issue most dividing Episcopalians and Lutherans: the role of bishops. Episcopalians adhere to the doctrine of the "historic episcopate," which teaches that the continuity and unity of the church is represented in bishops ordained in an unbroken succession back to the early church. It also holds that bishops are ordained for life and that only bishops may ordain clergy.

Lutherans, on the other hand, see bishops as holding administrative church offices without life tenure, and believe the continuity of the church is maintained by proclaiming the gospel and correctly administering the sacraments. Lutheran bishops in the U.S. do not claim consecration in the historic episcopate.

Negotiators for the two groups got around these differences through a grandfather clause. The Episcopal Church would agree to recognize all current ELCA bishops and pastors. In the future, however, all clergy in both churches would be ordained in ceremonies including three bishops from each. This would have the effect of bringing the ELCA clergy into the historic episcopate. Lutherans would also accept life tenure for bishops (although not necessarily in the same office), while Episcopalians would accept that the gospel is the "ultimate authority" governing bishops' work.

Full communion would be reached when all bishops in both denominations have been jointly ordained. This process will take several years. The two denominations' clergy would then be interchangeable.

The document will be studied by the two denominations over the next several years, with Episcopalians possibly voting on it as early as 1994 and the Lutherans as early as 1995. Leaders of both denominations expect a good deal of opposition to the compromise. The negotiators' vote in favor of the document was 12 to 3; all three dissenters were Lutherans.

Bishop Chilstrom says he is not concerned about the opposition of some of the Lutheran participants. "It indicates a difference of opinion within our church regarding this step. It is important for all members - pastors to groups to lay people - to discuss this. It needs thorough discussion," he says.

The Episcopal Church is a member of the Anglican communion, made up of churches affiliated with the Church of England. The ELCA was formed in 1987 in a union of three American Lutheran denominations. Both churches split from the Roman Catholic Church in the 16th century.

The ELCA has 5.2 million members, while the Episcopal Church has 2.5 million. Since both churches have international affiliations, their full unity could lead to closer ties between Lutherans and Anglicans elsewhere, according to Dr. Eugene Brand, assistant general secretary of the Lutheran World Federation in Geneva. There are 71 million Anglicans and 60 million Lutherans worldwide.