* In August, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) approved "Called to Common Mission," a proposal for full communion with the Episcopal Church. Episcopal leaders are expected to approve the document at their General Convention in July. The agreement is not a merger. The denominations would maintain separate identities while recognizing each other's members and clergy. One of the most visible outcomes would be the ability of an Episcopal priest to preside over Holy Communion and other sacraments in a Lutheran church and vice versa. Such a change is possible because the ELCA would return to the "historic episcopate," an unbroken chain--in spirit if not reality--of ecclesiastical leaders back to the 1st-century Church.

The Rev. Theodore F. Schneider, Washington bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, wears a purple clerical shirt much like that of his Episcopal counterpart, Bishop Ronald H. Haines.

Only brighter.

A pectoral cross hangs from Schneider's neck, much like that worn by Haines.

Only larger.

It's not that he's trying to outdo his Episcopal friend and colleague, Schneider explained. The purple shade is the one most readily available from his catalogue of liturgical products, and the 50-year-old cross was passed down by his predecessor, the Rev. E. Harold Jansen. (Haines said he prefers a smaller, lighter cross.)

But wearing these bishop symbols signifies the "growing appreciation of the pastoral work and office of bishop" in his denomination, Schneider said. And if a full communion agreement with the Episcopal Church takes effect next year, as expected, the role of bishop will take on even greater significance, he said.

Under that agreement, the country's largest Lutheran body, the 5.2-million-member Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, would begin consecrating its bishops following the ancient tradition used by the 2.3-million-member Episcopal Church. That practice, which dates to the 4th-century Council of Nicaea, requires the presence of three bishops who trace their ecclesiastical genealogy to the earliest days of the Church.

Technically, this "historic succession" means that any modern bishop--Catholic or Protestant--can plot his (or her) lineage back through thousands of consecrations to the Apostles. But few take the term literally.

"Nobody seriously argues you can prove a succession of bishops back to Peter," Schneider said.

At the same time, many theologians and historians believe that certain strands of Christianity have maintained the spirit and intent of the tradition with the "laying on of hands" through successive generations. Having three bishops at consecrations was meant to prevent one-sided political appointments and to guarantee at least one bishop in the historic episcopate, Schneider said.

Reformers in 16th-century Germany, to whom most American Lutherans trace their religious roots, deliberately broke the chain because they thought the German hierarchy was corrupt and "wouldn't accept the [bishops'] dirty hands on their heads," said Martin E. Marty, historian of American religions and an ordained Lutheran pastor.

In this country, no Lutheran leader carried the title bishop before 1970, when the American Lutheran Church--one of three groups that merged in 1987 to form the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America--stopped calling regional heads "presidents" and began referring to them as "bishops," according to ELCA spokesman John R. Brooks.

The 2.6-million-member Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, the nation's second-largest Lutheran group, still refers to synod heads as presidents and has condemned the ELCA for voting to return to the historic episcopate. The move also rankles many ELCA members, especially in the upper Midwestern states, who plan gatherings to continue their protest, Brooks said.

"Many Lutherans perceive themselves to be victims of wrongly spirited" religious leaders of the past, Schneider said. "Burned into their 'ROM chip' is the memory of being victims of an ecclesiastical system that was harmful."

The Episcopal Church, organized in America in 1789, has not experienced the same hierarchical problems, said Haines, the 814th bishop to be consecrated in church. It was able to maintain the historic episcopate because most Catholic bishops in 16th-century England joined the Reform Movement there.

Lutherans and Episcopalians, who have similar liturgies and views of the sacraments, have discussed full communion for three decades. Under such an agreement, the two denominations would recognize each other's baptized members and ordained clergy. Any ordained minister could preside over Holy Communion or baptisms at either church, using the liturgy of the host congregation.

In addition, Episcopal priests could serve in the pulpit of Lutheran churches, and Lutheran pastors could head Episcopal parishes. Such appointments would more likely occur in thinly populated communities, such as the rural Midwest, where Lutherans and Episcopalians have often shared churches. The agreement "helps standardize and codify" shared practices that already exist unofficially, Haines said.

The sharing of priests/pastors would ease difficulties in specialized programs, such as campus ministries or ministries to the deaf, he said.

A compromise on consecration and ordination allows this reciprocity. According to the proposed agreement, "Called to Common Mission," the Episcopal Church would suspend temporarily its requirement that all bishops and parish ministers be ordained by bishops in historic succession.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church, in turn, would agree to use three bishops in succession to install all future bishops, with bishops from both churches always present. The first consecrations might include bishops from Lutheran churches in Scandinavia, which retained the historic episcopate.

The reconsecration of bishops and reordination of pastors is not required because "that would be offensive to Lutherans," Haines said.

The stage for full communion was set two years ago, when the national assemblies of both churches voted on a proposal by a group of Lutheran and Episcopal theologians called "Concordat of Agreement." The Episcopal Church overwhelmingly approved the document, while the Lutherans rejected it by six votes and sent it to a rewrite committee chaired by Marty. In August, the ELCA's Churchwide Assembly adopted the revised plan.

The Episcopal Church is expected to adopt the new proposal at its General Convention in July. One "potential problem" is a clause that says a Lutheran bishop "shall regularly preside and participate in . . . the ordination of all clergy," said Midge Roof, of the church's office of ecumenical and interfaith relations.

The use of the term regularly--rather than always--might suggest that Lutheran bishops who commonly delegate ordinations to other pastors can continue to do so, Roof said.

But Brooks, the Lutheran spokesman, said the term merely "allows for pastoral discretion in emergencies." The intent of the entire clause is for Lutheran bishops "to adhere to the same standard" of ordination as Episcopal bishops, who preside over all ordinations, he said.

Roof said the General Convention, which meets every three years, could "alter and send back" to the ELCA any portion of "Called to Common Mission," which would postpone implementation. But a "reservoir of good feeling" about full communion should help resolve any problems, she said.

Schneider applauds the proposal. "What you see us doing is evolving back into an an ecclesiology the church once had," he said, adding that German Reform leader Martin Luther would have preferred to keep the office of bishop but decided he could not.

It complements similar agreements the Lutheran denomination recently made with the Presbyterian Church (USA), the United Church of Christ and the Reformed Church in America and the Moravian Church--all low- or no-hierarchy denominations. "Called to Common Mission" says neither the Episcopal Church nor Evangelical Lutheran Church is required to honor the other's communion agreements with other denominations.

But Schneider said the spirit of universal ecumenism, of Christian fellowship, will be enhanced by such efforts. "It's an exciting thing that the ELCA puts a bridge between two great Reformation traditions," he said.

Full communion also will encourage greater cooperation between the two denominations in supporting urban missions and increasing evangelistic efforts, he and Haines agreed.

Despite evidence that Lutherans and Episcopalians--like most mainline Protestant groups--have seen a decline in membership in recent years, Haines said that adding more members is not a goal of full communion.

"We expect growth to be a byproduct," he said.

THE EPISCOPAL CHURCH

Membership: 2.3 million.

Parishes and missions: 7,400 congregations in nine American provinces, Haiti, Micronesia, Taiwan and the Virgin Islands.

In full communion: 35 provinces of worldwide Anglican Communion, Old Catholic Churches of Europe, united churches of the Indian subcontinent, Mar Thoma Church and Philippine Independent Church.

Headquarters: New York City.

Organized: 1789, as the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America; use of the name the Episcopal Church approved, 1967.

Early history: Members of the Church of England landed in Jamestown in 1607. Anglican congregations spread throughout the Colonies, many arguing against the appointment of an American bishop.

First bishop: Samuel Seabury, of Connecticut, consecrated by bishops of the Scottish Episcopal Church in 1784. More than 940 bishops have been consecrated since then.

Number of bishops: 289 (145 are retired but still have a vote).

Bishop's term: Life (mandatory retirement at 72).

Responsibility: Includes ordaining all deacons and priests and doing all confirmations. These tasks can be delegated to the suffragan (assistant) bishop, also part of the historic succession.

DIOCESE OF WASHINGTON

Membership: 41,200

Jurisdiction: 96 congregations in the District of Columbia and four Maryland counties

Bishop Ronald H. Haines: Born Aug. 14, 1934. Ordinations: deacon, 1966; priest, 1967. Consecrated in 1986 as suffragan bishop of Washington (No. 814 in church's succession) by Presiding Bishop Edmond L. Browning (No. 630), Washington Bishop John T. Walker (No. 664) and western North Carolina Bishop William G. Weinhauer (No. 690). Elected bishop of Washington, 1990.

THE EVANGELICAL LUTHERAN CHURCH IN AMERICA

Membership: 5.2 million

Number of churches:

11,000 congregations in 65 synods (geographic areas) in the United States and the Caribbean.

In full communion: Lutheran World Federation, Presbyterian Church (USA), Reformed Church in America, United Church of Christ, the Moravian Church in America.

Headquarters: Chicago.

Organized: 1987, through a merger of the American Lutheran Church, the Lutheran Church in America and the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches.

Early history: German, Dutch and Scandinavian immigrants founded churches in Colonial Delaware, New York, Pennsylvania and the Carolinas. Midwestern churches developed later.

The title bishop: There were no Lutheran bishops before 1970, when the American Lutheran Church began substituting "bishop" for "president." The other two churches also adopted the term, which has been used since the merger.

Number of bishops: 66.

Bishop's term: Six years (can serve again).

Responsibility: Includes ordaining pastors, a role that can be delegated to another pastor or bishop. Under the new agreement, the bishop would preside over all ordinations except in cases of extreme emergency.

METROPOLITAN WASHINGTON SYNOD

Membership: 40,000

Jurisdiction: 79 congregations in the District of Columbia, Northern Virginia, suburban Maryland and Bermuda.

Bishop Theodore F. Schneider: Born Oct. 16, 1934, Portsmouth, Va. Ordained as pastor, 1959; elected bishop of Washington, 1995. Installation service held at Washington National Cathedral, led by then-Presiding Bishop Herbert W. Chilstrom.