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Lutherans again try to form closer ties to Episcopal Church

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Officials of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America have begun moving to revise a sweeping proposal for closer ties with the Episcopal Church, the first such effort since that proposal for "full communion" between the two denominations was rejected by a national Lutheran body in August.

The proposal, the "Concordat of Agreement," calls not for a merger of the two churches, but provides for each to recognize the other's sacraments and clergy members and for collaboration in missionary work and social service projects. It would also allow a Lutheran and an Episcopal congregation to share a clergy member.But many Lutherans who opposed it voiced concern about tying themselves to a church in which bishops play so large a role. The Lutheran body's decision was one of the most closely watched in years concerning ecumenical relations among Protestants.

On Nov. 16, Lutheran officials said, the denomination's Church Council asked leaders of both churches to come up with a new version of the cooperative pact by April, before Lutheran synods, or regional bodies, meet. The revised plan would be voted on by the Lutherans' biennial Churchwide Assembly, the denomination's top legislative body, in 1999, and by the Episcopalians' triennial General Convention in 2000.

Last week, church officials said, Lutheran Presiding Bishop H. George Anderson released a letter announcing the appointment of a three-member "drafting team," headed by Martin E. Marty, professor of American religion at the University of Chicago, to revise the concordat, with help from three Episcopalians to be appointed by Episcopal Presiding Bishop Edmond L. Browning.

Lutheran officials said that the Lutherans on the panel would be assisted by an advisory committee, composed of supporters and critics of the original plan.

"What we're trying to do is keep as many people in the loop as possible," said the Rev. Daniel Martensen, the Lutherans' director of ecumenical affairs. "I'm convinced it's pretty well-balanced."

When the plan, which had already been approved by the Episcopal Church, was narrowly defeated by voting members at the Churchwide Assembly on Aug. 18, the decision surprised officials in both churches. On the same day, the assembly approved a document similar to the concordat that established full communion between the Lutherans and three other denominations from Protestantism's Reformed branch - the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the United Church of Christ and the Reformed Church in America.

Taken together, the two votes offered a confusing picture of the state of Protestant churches' efforts at greater unity. (Before the assembly adjourned, it also adopted a resolution asking for a new attempt at working out an agreement for full communion with Episcopalians.)

Martensen said that Lutherans' concern over the authority of Episcopal bishops, who are elected for life and regarded within their church as belonging to an unbroken chain of leadership stretching back to the apostles, was the "most strongly voiced sentiment" among the plan's opponents at the assembly.

But he also said that overall opposition to the proposal arose from more complex reasons, some related to "different understandings and convictions about ministry" among Lutherans, whose denomination was created in 1988 through a merger of three smaller churches, each with its own history and traditions of church authority. "We're really trying to respect the variety of concerns" among supporters and opponents of the concordat, he said.