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ELCA Lutherans mark thirty fifth anniversary amid calls to develop past European roots

(RNS) – It’s each the oldest and the youngest of huge Lutheran denominations in the US, by the World Council of Church buildings’ reckoning.

The mainline Evangelical Lutheran Church in America formally was created 35 years in the past this Saturday (April 30), the results of a merger of three older denominations: the American Lutheran Church, the Lutheran Church in America and the Affiliation of Evangelical Lutheran Church buildings.

By means of these predecessors, the ELCA can hint its roots within the U.S. again to 1748.

“We realized we might do much more collectively than we have been doing individually and have extra influence,” mentioned Bishop Elizabeth Eaton, presiding bishop of the ELCA.

Eaton remembers being a “very younger pastor” at a church outdoors Columbus, Ohio, when the constituting convention met April 30 to Could 3, 1987, in that metropolis to elect the primary officers. 

The meeting, she mentioned, was “fairly thrilling and heady.” There was a whole lot of politicking over who could be elected from which predecessor physique.

There have been even protests. Members of DMX — a Lutheran protest group recognized for techniques like depositing rotting fish and spraying skunk oil in banks — tried to pressure their approach onto the ground of the meeting. In the course of the melee, the meeting broke into Protestant Reformer Martin Luther’s well-known hymn “A Mighty Fortress,” which Eaton says now “possibly was not your best option.”

ELCA feminine clergy take part in a service celebrating 50 years of girls’s ordination through the ELCA Churchwide Meeting on Aug. 9, 2019, in Milwaukee, Wisc. Photograph courtesy of ELCA

However many ELCA pastors at this time don’t have any reminiscence of these predecessor our bodies, Eaton identified. They might not have been born till after the merger.

A type of pastors is the Rev. Lenny Duncan, writer of “Dear Church: A Love Letter from a Black Preacher to the Whitest Denomination in the U.S.,” who grew to become Lutheran within the 2000s.

Duncan praised the ELCA’s choice to change into a “sanctuary church body” in 2019, in addition to its response after Dylan Roof, a member of an ELCA congregation, killed 9 folks at a 2015 Bible examine at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.

Rev. Lenny Duncan. Courtesy photo

Rev. Lenny Duncan. Courtesy photograph

However, Duncan mentioned, the denomination hasn’t finished sufficient to behave on the statements it has made or to deal with white supremacy, the “nice name of the church” presently, Duncan mentioned.

“I would like the church to be the candy nard. I would like it to be the general public’s conscience,” Duncan mentioned. “You do this by being on the street with the general public. You don’t do this with statements. You don’t do this with video. And also you don’t do this by not exhibiting up.”

Extra progressive Lutherans see “inherent racism” within the construction of the denomination, Duncan added. In the meantime, extra conservative Lutherans see the denomination as too progressive.

“We’re ripe for schism,” Duncan mentioned.

RELATED: Black minister to his mostly white ELCA denomination: ‘We need to rethink church’

Eaton admits the ELCA faces some important challenges; particularly, after 35 years of efforts to diversify, the denomination stays one of many whitest within the nation.

It held contentious churchwide assemblies in 2005, 2007 and 2009, when delegates voted to permit homosexual and lesbian Lutherans in dedicated relationships to function clergy. “We spent years arguing about intercourse,” she mentioned. Afterward, a whole bunch of church buildings left the denomination.

And — though she mentioned she’s positive the ELCA is considered as “very liberal,” and clergy tends to skew extra progressive than their congregations — the way in which the denomination is organized, people don’t have to just accept any of its social teachings.

Bishop Elizabeth Eaton. Courtesy photo

Bishop Elizabeth Eaton. Courtesy photograph

For higher or worse, Eaton mentioned, that was the imaginative and prescient when the American Lutheran Church, the Lutheran Church in America and the Affiliation of Evangelical Lutheran Church buildings merged to kind the ELCA.

Many Lutheran church buildings nonetheless have been talking the languages of the European immigrants who introduced their religion to the U.S. till they started to merge within the 20th century, in line with the Rev. Lowell Almen, the longtime secretary of the ELCA, who was elected on the constituting conference.

4 church buildings of German, Norwegian and Danish descent had merged in 1960 to kind the American Lutheran Church. 4 extra German, Danish, Finnish and Swedish church buildings had merged in 1962 to kind the Lutheran Church in America. Every introduced their very own histories, their very own approach of doing issues.

Critics on the time panned the 1987 formation of the ELCA as “simply one other massive company merger,” Almen mentioned.

And even its largest cheerleaders couldn’t have predicted the rise in secularism that has impacted membership in denominations throughout the U.S. ELCA membership was about 5.3 million in 1987, in line with the Association of Religion Data Archives. That dropped to three.3 million in 2020, in line with the ELCA.

However the denomination’s “deep and profound” dedication to ecumenism has endured, he mentioned.

“I believe the historical past of the ELCA is the historical past of each ecumenical consciousness and ecumenical dedication in extremely substantive methods. It’s not only a matter of smiling throughout the desk, being good to one another,” Almen mentioned.

The ELCA Churchwide Assembly on Aug. 6, 2019, in Milwaukee. Video screen grab

The ELCA Churchwide Meeting on Aug. 6, 2019, in Milwaukee. Video display screen seize

Right now the denomination has six full communion companions and is a part of the Lutheran World Federation, Eaton famous.

It has set an formidable purpose to interact 1 million “new, younger and numerous” folks by the top of the last decade.

And its message — which the presiding bishop described as an emphasis on salvation as a present from God that frees Lutherans to behave on the planet — resonates, she mentioned.

“There’s all the time room in God’s home,” Eaton mentioned.

RELATED: ‘A celebration for the whole church’: ELCA women reflect on 50 years of ordination


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