This issue of Let’s Talk is devoted to the presentations and discussion at a Workshop on Called to Common Mission (CCM), the revised Concordat with the Episcopal Church, which will come before the Churchwide Assembly in August. The Workshop preceded the 1999 Synod Assembly and was sponsored by the Synod Ecumenical Affairs Committee.
“There appears to be deep division regarding this matter within the ELCA,” wrote Mike Bennett, a lay delegate to the Assembly from St. James in Lake Forest, during the question period. He goes on to cite evidence of strongly divided opinion in the ELCA concerning CCM and to ask probing questions about the implications of this division. (See Comments and Questions: The Dialogue Extended in this issue.)
What is it about CCM that is driving Lutherans into two camps? There is no disagreement when the proposal declares that the ELCA and the Episcopal Church “recognize in each other the essentials of the one catholic and apostolic faith.” CCM’s account of commonality in doctrine is unchallenged; mutual acceptance of the authority of Scripture, of the ecumenical Creeds and the basic Trinitarian and Christological dogmas to which they testify; a common understanding of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper and God’s justifying grace, a common belief that the church is constituted and sustained by the Triune God. The earnest desire of Episcopalians and Lutherans to be in full communion, to answer the call to common mission, is unquestioned. But Mr. Bennett is right. There is a passionate, potentially divisive disagreement about the same issue that permeated the Concordat debate in 1997. The heat rises from the question of whether the ELCA shall receive the historic episcopate, a tradition that goes back to the ancient church, in which bishops already in the succession install newly elected bishops with prayer and the laying-on-of-hands. The reader should refer to CCM for the details of the process through which the ELCA and the Episcopal Church would work together to complete this essential feature of their coming into full communion.
We say “essential” with trepidity for around that word swirls the storm! For Episcopalians, the historic episcopate is essential to their self-understanding and to unity with other church bodies. It binds together the worldwide Anglican Communion. The historic episcopate is one side of a “quadrilateral,” the other three sides being the canon of Scripture, the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, and the Sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Through these means the church from ancient times to the present has preserved the apostolic witness.
For Lutherans, the historic episcopate is an option for ordering ministry but it is not essential. Lutherans have preserved the apostolic witness through the same means as Episcopalians except that faithfulness to doctrine, validated by subscription to the sixteenth century Confessions, has played a role analogous to the historic episcopate. The Lutheran reformers in Germany articulated this alternative when the German bishops refused to ordain evangelical priests. The Lutheran Churches of the world are bound together by common subscription to the Confessions.
Lutheran proponents of the historic episcopate have a range of arguments. Some are passive: “It does no harm and enables us to achieve full communion with the Episcopalians which is good for mission, sharing of resources, etc.” Active arguments assert that receiving the historic episcopate is a good thing, even beyond the present CCM context.” “The historic episcopate is a sign of continuity in faith and mission with the whole church. It was the preferred polity of the reformers. An evangelical episcopate is an important ecumenical breakthrough with implications beyond Lutherans and Episcopalians. Adopting CCM is a step toward evaluation and continual reform of the office of bishop in the service of the gospel.”
These arguments do not persuade Lutheran opponents of the historic episcopate, who tend to see the matter in terms of a loss of freedom. They argue that CCM forces Lutherans to relinquish a confessional principle (Augsburg Confession, Article VII), which assumes that gathering around Word and Sacrament is enough for the true unity of the church. Episcopalians, they say, are adding another condition to what is already sufficient. The “Mahtomedi Resolution,” a proposal for unity with the Episcopal Church without the requirement of the historic episcopate incorporates this argument, as did the dissent to the earlier Concordat.
These brief remarks do not convey the full scope and force of the debate but they suggest why it was important to have the Workshop and why Let’s Talk is publishing the proceedings. The Workshop was planned to supply background, to provide an opportunity for both sides to state their case, and to invite audience response. This was a tall order for two hours but the exchange was well presented and well received.
The panel consisted of Professor Cynthia Jürisson, Father William Roberts, Pastor Frank Senn, and Bishop Steven Ullestad. Cynthia Jürisson is Associate Professor of Church History at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. William Roberts is the Ecumenical Officer of the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago, Frank Senn is the Ecumenical Representative for the Metropolitan Chicago Synod. He was a member of one of the official Lutheran/Episcopal dialogues that led to the Concordat. Steven Ullestad is the bishop of the Northeast Iowa Synod of the ELCA. The first two presentations provided background for debate. Senn led with a history of Lutheran/Episcopal relations followed by Roberts who expressed why Anglicans are committed to the historic episcopate. The second two presentations together were an epitome of the debate: Jürisson expressed opposition to CCM and support for the alternative Mahtomedi Resolution. Ullestad answered with support for CCM. Following the presentations the four panelists fielded written comments and questions from the audience. The four presentations and a summary or the comments/questions are in this issue.
We are aware of the timeliness of talking about CCM and intend to have this issue of Let’s Talk in your hands before the Churchwide Assembly meets in Denver. However, the questions raised in this debate are more than questions about our relationship with the Episcopalians, as important as that is. An unidentified comment writer, opposed to CCM, asked “Is [CCM] not an attempt to define something about ourselves, namely our own sense of magisterium?” She/he goes on: “CCM seems to move in subtle and not-so-subtle ways to change our polity. We will become more episcopal and less congregational. Prior to an agreement with the Episcopalians in which this is asserted, would it not be preferable for us, the ELCA, to discuss our own polity, to debate this on the floor apart from a discussion of ecumenism? Perhaps, we could first assert our own commitments and define our own distinctions between congregational and episcopal structures before trying to determine whether our structures can function in cooperation with other church bodies.” (See Comments and Questions: The Dialogue Extended in this issue).
It is unlikely that the order of business in Denver will change as this writer suggests but he/she is on to something important. This debate raises basic questions about who we are as Lutherans. When both opponents and proponents of CCM support their arguments from the same confessional documents, they are obviously reading those documents in different ways. It is fair to ask if they are thinking and speaking from different senses of Lutheran identity. Whichever way the vote goes in Denver some very disappointed Lutherans who love their Church will be convinced that it is headed in the wrong direction. It will be a time for joy and sadness. It will be a time for study, reflection, dialogue and prayer.
 “Called to Common Mission: A Lutheran Proposal for a Revision of the Concordat of Agreement” Report of the Drafting Team.” Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, 8765 W. Higgins Road, Chicago, IL 60631 (1998).