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The quintessential family reunion

Ask a Minnesota Lutheran what constitutes a “mixed marriage” and, more likely than not, they’ll tell you it’s the wedding between a Norwegian and a Swede, or a Dane and a German. It’s a joke, but it wasn’t always so.

When we think of the development — and consolidation — of Lutheran church bodies in North America, the mixed-marriage metaphor doesn’t quite work. The better image might be that of a family reunion. Lutherans came from Europe in great waves of immigration, over the space of 300 years. Because Lutherans (unlike Anglicans/Episcopalians or Roman Catholics) on this side of the Atlantic were not hierarchical, they had no bishops to tell them how to organize themselves.

Michael L. Sherer

As a result, dozens of separate Lutheran church bodies (some historians suggest as many as 150) developed primarily in what became the United States. These Lutherans were separated by geography, language, and ethnicity. This hodgepodge of sometimes competing, sometimes overlapping church groups led to the comic-tragic saying, “Lutherans are a faith community divided by a common heritage.”

The family tree

The groups began combining by the early 20th century. For the most part, it was Germans combining with other Germans, Norwegians with other Norwegians. (There was only one Swedish church, and the two Danish groups kept their distance from one another.)

By the mid-1960s there were only three large Lutheran church families left in the United States (along with some very small Norwegian groups that wanted to keep their independent status and a couple German-based communities). The “new” American Lutheran Church (TALC) brought together a lot of Norwegians (the Evangelical Lutheran Church and the Lutheran Free Church) and Germans (the old ALC), as well as one of two Danish groups United Evangelical Lutheran Church).

Shortly after TALC came into being, the United Lutheran Church in America, representing most of the east coast Germans, combined with the (Swedish) Augustana Synod, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (Suomi Synod) and the other Danish church (American Evangelical Church) to form the Lutheran Church in America (LCA). The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod was the third large group.

For a brief period during the 1960s, there was a fond hope (not very realistic, as it turned out) that the Big Three would find a way to combine into a unified Lutheran Church for the country (if not for all of North America). One sign of that dream was the creation of a common worship book, the green-cover Lutheran Book of Worship.

But the brief window of hopeful optimism quickly closed. The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) rejected the hymnal its scholars helped to create (although some LCMS congregations began using it anyway). In the 1970s a conservative movement in the LCMS guaranteed no significant cooperation was going to result between that church and the other two large U.S. Lutheran groups.

“Lutherans are a faith community divided by a common heritage.”

That didn’t stop leaders of the ALC and the LCA from moving toward a new church body of their own. As early as 1980, the publishing houses of the two churches — the LCA’s Fortress Press and the ALC’s Augsburg Publishing House — began developing and marketing common curriculum for Sunday schools, confirmation classes, and adult education.

Moving toward merger

In the 1980s four Lutheran seminaries combined into two. In Ohio, the LCA seminary in Springfield and the ALC seminary in Columbus joined to form Trinity Lutheran Seminary on the Columbus campus. In the Twin Cities, the LCA’s Northwestern Seminary moved from Minneapolis to a site adjacent to the campus of Luther Seminary in St Paul and built a striking new academic complex. A few years later, the schools combined to become Luther-Northwestern Seminary (now called simply “Luther Seminary”).

Increasingly, leaders and lay members of both the ALC and the LCA found fewer if any compelling reasons to remain separate. That led to the creation of the Consultation on Church Union, a task force that smoothed the way for a merger in 1988. The new church body, with over 5 million baptized members, borrowed the name of a previous Norwegian Lutheran body (the “Evangelical Lutheran Church”) by adding the words “in America.” The new acronym became ELCA.

There was something striking about the creation of The ELCA. Unlike the all-German Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod or the almost-entirely-German LCMS, or the several small all-Norwegian Lutheran groups, the ELCA combined the ethnic heritages of a broad spectrum of European Lutheran heritage — German, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish (and even Slovak and Icelandic). It was the quintessential “Lutheran family reunion.”

The ELCA is the largest Lutheran faith community in the western hemisphere. This year the ELCA marks 25 years since its creation. The denomination is the most progressive (some would say “liberal”) of all U.S. Lutheran bodies. Like any family, there are squabbles and disagreements. But, for the most part, the signs are that the members of this multi-national church family are glad they got together.

Michael L. Sherer is editor emeritus of Metro Lutheran. A retired ELCA pastor, he lives with his wife Kathe in Waverly, Iowa.

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