More than 1,000 Lutherans from across the country gathered Sunday night in Mahtomedi to organize their resistance to a pact with the Episcopal Church that they say would radically change their denomination's structure.
The meeting opened the constituting convention for WordAlone Network, an organization that seeks to overturn the adoption of the Episcopal ordination practice called "historic episcopate." In this practice, each bishop is installed by a laying on of hands by three predecessor bishops from a line believed to extend back to Jesus' apostles.
WordAlone supporters don't oppose the alliance to recognize and share Episcopal sacraments and clergy and cooperate in missionary projects, which the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) approved last summer. Together, the two churches have about 7.5 million members.
But speakers at the meeting rallied Lutherans around cries for freedom and democracy to refuse to accept the mandatory historic episcopate.
"Even if they talk about servants, there will be a hierarchy of servants," said the Rev. David Preus, president of the American Lutheran Church before it merged with the Lutheran Church of America to form today's ELCA.
Preus added that the historic episcopate goes against the teachings of the Reformation, especially the priesthood of all believers, and sets up the church as a caste system. Al Quie, a former Minnesota governor who also spoke at the convention, said Lutherans can't afford to lose their freedom under a top-down imposition.
"It is the same sign to us that a Confederate flag is to African-Americans," Quie said. "We have to be historic episcopate free."
The four-day convention was designed to plan forms of resistance, said the Rev. Roger Eigenfeld, WordAlone chair and pastor of St. Andrew's Lutheran Church, the host congregation.
He said WordAlone's goal is to make Lutheran leaders aware of the opposition and get them to rework the pact so that the historic episcopate is not mandatory. He added that resistance to the practice also might lead to a schism in the Chicago-based ELCA, the nation's largest Lutheran denomination.
"We aren't going to leave. We want to stay," he said. "But we might get kicked out."
WordAlone supporters plan to present resolutions and elect delegates opposed to the practice so that the pact might be voted out at the next Lutheran churchwide assembly in 2001, Eigenfeld said. Another way to resist could be redirecting benevolences, or congregations' dues, away from the ELCA.
The Rev. Mark Hanson, bishop of the St. Paul Area Synod of the ELCA, said he doesn't think that the historic episcopate goes against Lutheran beliefs.
"If churches identifying with WordAlone began to withhold their support from the ELCA, it will impact our mission. Whether the WordAlone movement will become a new Lutheran church in the United States, it is an open question," he said.
The Rev. Christopher Hershman traveled from Allentown, Pa., to attend.
"I feel that ELCA has left the Lutheran proclamation of the gospel, " he said. "This is a matter of conscience and faith. I couldn't do otherwise but be here today."
Hershman and other Lutherans also feel that the laity was not sufficiently informed about the ELCA vote that approved the unity pact and the new ordination practice.
"So we are gunning for freedom," Eigenfeld said.
The Eastern North Dakota Synod of the ELCA voted Friday to support those who oppose the historic episcopate and to send its resolution, asking that the practice not be mandatory, to the ELCA Church Council.
Episcopalians are expected to approve a pact with the ELCA during a convention in July. Calls by the Associated Press to Episcopal Church headquarters in New York City were not returned by Sunday night.