Thank you for this opportunity to speak. As you can imagine, it’s pretty difficult to have to stand up here and tell you, much less try to convince you, that CCM is a fundamentally flawed document that you should reject; but for the sake of honesty, I want to let you know up front where I stand.
Over the past two years I have come to the conclusion that it would be a grave mistake for the ELCA to vote affirmatively for the Lutheran/Episcopal Ecumenical Proposal, Called to Common Mission (CCM), in its present form. Simply put, CCM is the wrong way to do the right thing. This ecumenical proposal is the biggest decision that has every faced our Lutheran Church. It is not a minor adjustment, but rather a major alteration in Lutheran theology and Lutheran structure and organization, that will forever change the face of Lutheranism in North America.
By demanding Lutheran acceptance of the historic episcopate, CCM sets a humanly created institution, the office of the bishop, alongside and equal to the divinely given gifts of Word and Sacrament. This is not just a matter of adding a new liturgical rite to the Lutheran Book of Worship, but in fact constitutes a radical redefinition of ordained ministry, and is a radical departure from Lutheran perspective. It constitutes a compromise—indeed a rejection—of important aspects of Luther’s doctrine of the universal priesthood and Lutheran baptismal theology, as well as the Lutheran doctrines of the ministry and the Church.
While I am opposed to this particular agreement, I am not at all opposed to the Episcopal Church, or to working with Episcopalians in the North American mission field. I very much respect Episcopal self-identity and Episcopal Church organization. I believe that we can and should have an ecumenical agreement in which that respect is mutual; an agreement in which Episcopalians respect and accept without reservation current Lutheran self-identity and Lutheran church organization as fully valid. I would like to have an agreement which does not demand, as CCM does, that we Lutherans make changes in our Constitution, changes in our liturgies, changes in our theology and changes in our self-understanding to make ourselves acceptable to the Episcopal Church. Frankly, I believe that most Episcopalians feel the same way.
In the following pages, I am going to lay out for your consideration what I understand to be some of the most serious problems of CCM.
The Problem of the Historic Episcopate
Without a doubt, the main issue, the neuralgic problem is the demand that the ELCA take on this thing called the historic episcopate. What is it? A number of church bodies, including the Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Episcopal Churches believe in the historic episcopate. There are subtle and not so subtle differences of interpretation among them on this issue. It can be said however that, at minimum, the historic episcopate is the idea that a church body is not fully authentic and legitimate, and is not able to reach its fullest expression of unity and validity, unless it is led by bishops. And not just any bishops, but only bishops who have received a unique ordination, different from the ordination of pastors. This unique ordination gives them special graces or charisms, which make them actually different from pastors and lay people and which connect them in an unbroken line to the apostles.
The word Episcopal means “of the bishop.” In the mid-1960s when the Episcopal Church officially renamed itself, it accepted the name Episcopal to show that it is the bishop’s church, a church constituted by, organized around, defined by and named according to the office of bishop. In other words, for Episcopalians, “Bishops are Us.” But, also it’s important to note that for Episcopalians, only a certain kind of bishop counts. Bishops aren’t true, authentic bishops unless they have received this thing called the historic episcopate. In ecumenical dialogues, Episcopalians have always stated that there can be no full cooperation unless ecumenical partners change their own practices and structures of ministry to conform to the practices and standards of the Episcopal Church. This has always included the demand that all other churches and all other kinds of bishops must take on the historic episcopate to make them fully legitimate in the eyes of the Episcopal Church.
And therein lies the problem: Lutherans, and most other Protestants, do not believe in, and don’t subscribe to, this idea of an “historic episcopate,” for a very good reason. It is, quite simply, an historical fiction. It is not mentioned in the New Testament, and it is not clearly or uniformly practiced in the Early Church. All the New Testament says about church organization is that oversight is necessary, but it doesn’t specify what type of oversight. There are several different structures of leadership in the New Testament and early church, including both councils of elders and individual overseers, etc.; and all are legitimate. The New Testament term for overseer (in koine Greek) is episkope, which has been translated into English as bishop. But in the New Testament the word episcope is not a title, as in Bishop Jones, but is simply a functional description, like “responsible person,” or “person in charge.” Particularly important, the New Testament never suggests that this overseer is in charge of the sacraments. In the Anglican, Episcopal, Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches, the bishop is the person who guarantees, through his ordaining of pastors, that they will be able to make the bread and wine become the body and blood of Jesus Christ. This association of the bishop with the Lord’s Supper doesn’t exist in the New Testament. The overseer is not in charge of the sacraments, does not control their distribution and does not assure their effectiveness.
Because neither the historic episcopate nor the office of bishop have a biblical basis, Lutherans have always maintained that neither the historic episcopate nor the office of bishop is essential or necessary for the Church to exist. As the Lutheran Confessions state repeatedly, the office of bishop, like every other form of church organization, is a “ceremony instituted by men,” not God. In other words, the office of bishop, and the idea of an historic episcopate, are both human inventions, so they are not of the essence of the one true Church, the Body of Christ. Lutherans around the world have been pretty consistent on this point, always teaching that the essence of the Church is believers gathered around the divinely given gifts of Word and Sacrament, nothing more and nothing less. Even among Lutherans who have the historic episcopate, for example in Sweden, there is no attempt to place the historic episcopate on the same level as Word and Sacrament. And, there is no attempt to demand that other Lutheran Churches adopt it as a condition for ecumenical relationships. So the Swedish Lutheran Church has had no problem letting ELCA and other Lutheran pastors without the historic episcopate serve in Swedish churches.
This point is an important one, especially in light of a recent edition of the Lutheran, which included an article about the Swedish Lutheran Church that implied that Swedish Lutheran and Anglican/Episcopal understandings of the historic episcopate were quite similar. In fact, the Anglican/Episcopal understanding of the historic episcopate is very different than the Lutheran, even the Swedish Lutheran, understanding on this point. The Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, an 1888 statement of Anglican/Episcopal teaching on this point, essentially states that the unity of the Church cannot exist without bishops who have received this historic episcopate. For Anglicans and Episcopalians, the very existence of the Church depends on the presence of bishops. The problem with this is that the Lutheran Confessions consistently understand and refer to the office of bishop, and all other types of church polity, as “ceremonies instituted by men.” They are seen as things invented by human beings which therefore are not of the essence of the one true Church, the Body of Christ. Luther himself stated the matter clearly and succinctly when he wrote, “In the Church, it is not the succession of bishops which makes a bishop but the Lord alone is our bishop.” (Luther, WA 53: p. 74)
The problem of the Episcopal Church’s Approach of Ecumenism
The Episcopal approach to ecumenical agreement in North America has tended to be, “Our way or no way.” In American ecumenical dialogues, Episcopalians have always insisted that other churches change their structures and practices to conform to Episcopal structures and practices. Lutherans are not the only ones to have serious reservations about this demand. In fact, millions of American Christians have said no, not happily, but rather frustratedly, to the Episcopal demand that they take on the historic episcopate. In January, 1999, the largest Protestant ecumenical group in the US, the Consultation on Church Union (COCU), said a final and definite no to the Episcopal demand that all the member churches of COCU must adopt the historic episcopate. The COCU organization speaks for eight Protestant churches, including Presbyterians, Methodists, various Baptists, etc., which together have a total membership of about 15 million American Christians. Members of COCU concluded that while they respected Episcopal self-understandings, they could not find sufficient scriptural or missional justification to conclude that the Episcopal way was the only valid way to structure their own churches’ ministries.
The Problem of Being Asked to Believe One Thing But Do Another
One of the most problematic aspects of CCM is the way in which it corrodes the relationship between belief and practice by encouraging Lutherans to believe one thing but do another. Pastors dedicate their lives to helping believers hold Sunday and Monday together—in other words, to helping believers make their actions fit with their faith. But CCM does just the opposite. It states that Lutherans are free to believe that the historic episcopate is not “necessary for the relationship of full communion,” while at the same time it also says that “The Episcopal Church is free to maintain that sharing in the historic catholic episcopate…is necessary…[for] full communion….” (CCM, paragraph 13) It then attempts to reconcile this irreconcilable difference by directing the ELCA to reconstruct and revise its liturgical rites, including the rite for “Installation of a Bishop,” to conform to new, Anglican/Episcopalian understanding of the office of bishop. Well, what is so bad about that, you might ask? We’ll just add a few different words, create a few new ceremonies, change a few liturgies to keep the Episcopalians happy. The problem is that liturgy is, after all, a form of catechesis—a form of teaching. As CCM states up-front in paragraph 5, “…the liturgy [is] a…significant factor in forming the consensus of the faithful.” What does this mean in plain English? In practical terms, it means that if my five year old son grows up immersed in church ceremonies, activities, prayers and liturgical rites which teach, affirm, and proclaim an Episcopal polity, in twenty years he will be, functionally and theologically, an Episcopalian, i.e., a member of a church which understands the office of the bishop to be necessary for its very essence.
Also, I want to note that this is not the only ecumenical agreement in which Lutherans are being told that we can believe whatever we want, but for the sake of ecumenical unity, we need to change our practices and structures to conform to another church’s tastes. The Lutheran/Orthodox ecumenical dialogue has just produced a Common Statement on Faith which recommends that the ELCA use a version of the Nicene Creed (Nicea 381) which does not include the words, “and the Son,” commonly known as the filioque clause. In other words, the dialogue team is suggesting that we remove these three words from the Nicene Creed, so that on Sunday mornings we would now say, “I believe in the Holy Spirit which proceeds from the Father.” Period. The document says that of course we can continue to believe that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, but we need to remove those words, “And the Son” to be sensitive to the wishes of our Orthodox brethren, who do not accept the teaching that the Holy Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son. Quite apart from the theological and historical issues involved here, I just can’t imagine why we would want to place every single parish pastor, who is trying so hard to proclaim the Gospel, in the difficult position of having to justify to his or her parish the removal of these words from the creed, even though we still believe that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. I am deeply concerned that this new style of ecumenism in the ELCA, in which Lutherans are encouraged to say one thing and do another for the sake of supposed unity with another denomination. This is not real ecumenism, and it doesn’t produce true unity.
The Problems with CCM for ELCA Liberals and ELCA Conservatives
There has been much talk about how those who oppose CCM are conservatives and those who support it are liberals. In fact, neither of these assumptions are true. More importantly, it is the case that the vast majority of both liberals and conservatives in the ELCA stand to lose a lot if CCM passes. Why? Because CCM’s theological agenda is inconsistent, if not incompatible with, some of the primary theological commitments of both liberals and conservatives in the ELCA.
The Problems with CCM for conservatives
One of the primary commitments and animating visions of many ELCA conservatives has been the goal of fulfilling the Great Commission. Mission-minded conservatives, of which there are many in the ELCA, have a high degree of commitment to ELCA programs which emphasize domestic evangelism to the unchurched and barely churched, overseas missions which carry the Gospel to cultures which haven’t yet heard it, and local programs of church growth which actively seek to upbuild congregations through an active and intentional process of attracting and discipling new members. Certainly one would think that mission-minded conservatives would find a great deal to be happy about in CCM. The revised Concordat has been renamed “Called to Common Mission,” and mission has been the major rationale for passage of the document this time around. Several Lutheran leaders have made passionate pleas for support of CCM for the sake of mission, and articles and statements in The Lutheran and elsewhere suggest that the very future of Lutheran missions in North America depends upon passage of this agreement.
There is just one problem with all of this rhetoric. It has no basis in fact. It is quite possible that CCM and the inflexible structures it imposes on Lutherans will not be a help to mission. Put more bluntly, the structural changes CCM demands could make North American mission very, very difficult. One need to look no further than Episcopal Church membership statistics for evidence that the Episcopal Church structure has not furthered North American mission endeavors by or among Episcopalians. Now, what I have to say here is very difficult to discuss. I in no way want to make any Episcopalian friends or colleagues in this audience uncomfortable, but we simply must take very seriously the fact that the Episcopal Church is a church which has suffered extremely steep membership decline in recent years. Between 1967 and 1997 the Episcopal Church USA lost 34% of its membership. (Figures taken from the “Summary of Statistics” The Episcopal Church Annual 1968 and 1988.) In 1967 the ECUSA had 3.5 million members, but by 1997 it had only 2.3 million members. So in a thirty-year span of time, the average Episcopal congregation lost over a third of its membership. Some Lutheran leaders dismiss this membership decline as irrelevant, or say that Lutherans need to take an ecumenical risk here. In the pages of The Lutheran we’ve been told that this CCM agreement is worth the risk because there are so many mission possibilities available to us if we do this. As a scholar of the American religious scenario, I say, this is not risk; this is folly. There are simply no missional advantages to taking on the structure of a church which lost 34% of its membership in a recent 30-year period. At the very least, we have to acknowledge that Episcopal structures of governance have not guarded the Episcopal Church from serious decline. At the worst, we must admit the very real possibility that those structures have made it very difficult for the Episcopal Church to grow. It is just sheer folly to adopt the organizational structure of a church which has lost so many members, and to do so presumably for the sake of mission!
Now, having said that, there are two other things I want to state very clearly. First, there is no doubt that Episcopal structure, organization and worship styles have their place and constituency in North America. There are obviously people who like the high liturgical style of many Episcopal churches, who like to have the church’s essence and self-understanding centered and focused on the bishop, and who value episcopally focused ecclesiastical hierarchy. That is fine, and all of us very much need to respect Episcopal self-identity. Second, I do not conclude from these statistics that we should not cooperate with the ECUSA in mission endeavors. Rather, I simply question the wisdom of adopting the polity structure of a church that has suffered such serious membership decline in recent years. Article Seven of the Augsburg Confession gives us enormous flexibility in how we organize ourselves as a church body, but it does not give us permission to make decisions devoid of the God-given gift of common sense. If we are talking about mission here, there is just not enough good news on the Episcopal mission front to suggest that adopting Episcopal polity makes any sense for the ELCA. Episcopal polity does not appear to be an effective mission tool in North America.
The Problems with CCM for Liberals.
The problems with CCM for liberals is that this agreement constructs a so-called unity at the expense of diversity. Perhaps the primary theological commitment of ELCA liberals has been a commitment to diversity and inclusivity—to lifting up many different voices in the ELCA, and to celebrating that diversity of voices as a good gift of God. At every level of governance the ELCA has made a commitment to principles of diversity in selection of church leaders, delegates to assemblies, members of boards and committees, etc. Yet amidst this church-wide commitment to diversity, we have been presented with an ecumenical proposal which equates unity with uniformity and rejects structural diversity out of hand. The fact is that CCM is utterly inconsistent with the commitments of the ELCA liberals to diversity and pluralism.
Why does CCM reject structural diversity out of hand? Because it is based on a very dated paradigm of ecumenism, which sees unity as impossible without uniformity. I say the paradigm is dated because it rests on two false assumptions.
The first false assumption is that the average American is scandalized by the existence of many different churches, with different structures and polities. This is sometimes called the scandal of the divided church, or divided Christendom. The problem with this argument is that it just isn’t true. It is a completely inaccurate read of the average American’s mindset. The average American values having choices and options, and understands quite well that a particular church, with its particular worship and administrative style, might be the right choice for one Christian, but not for another. You see, for the average person on the street, the real scandal is not that there are different denominations, but that these denominations have often been disrespectful of each other, refusing to recognize and respect each other’s particularity and legitimacy. In matters of church choice, just like in so many other things, one size does not fit all.
This first false assumption undergrids a second false assumption, that the goal of ecumenism is to create unity by constructing structural uniformity among various church bodies. In other words, unity in the body of Christ is not something to be claimed a priori, but instead something to be constructed by committee. This is very different than Article 7 of the Augsburg Confession, which understands unity as something we receive as a gift of God, rather than something we construct with human hands.
Informed by these presuppositions, structural uniformity became the holy grail of ecumenism for a number of late nineteenth and early twentieth century theologians who couldn’t conceive of unity without uniformity. This older unity = uniformity ecumenical paradigm participated in a selective reading of scripture to justify its uniformity goals, singling out verses such as John 17:11 “that they all may be one,” as mandates for structural merger and turning them into slogans toward that end. Of course, one could point to other verses in John in which Jesus describes his relationship to believers, and their relationships to each other. John 15:5 for example: “I am the vine and you are the branches.” I find it curious that in this current discussion, verses like John 15:5, which offer clear scriptural support for a kind of unity which respects and preserves God-given diversity, are completely ignored!
This old fashioned unity = uniformity paradigm was, until recently, dominant in American culture. You know it under the more common term of the “melting pot” theory. The melting pot theory held that to be a real American, you had to shed your distinctiveness, lose your unique ethnic and cultural characteristics, and erase your particularities, in order to assimilate into a new, unified culture that was free from all past ethnic and cultural traditions, etc. This paradigm served most of the country fairly well for a long time, but it began to lose its power in the late 1960s when race issues became more urgent. There were finally, it was clear, some differences—which could never be resolved by assimilation, no matter how hot the melting pot got. When we began to take seriously categories of race, ethnicity and gender, the limitations of the melting pot theory quickly became clear. People began to realize that uniformity is not always possible, but more importantly, that it is not always desirable. Why? Because attempts to achieve uniformity do not respect the very real, God-given differences between people.
In the search for new foundations for social cohesion in American culture, an alternative paradigm has emerged in place of the unity = uniformity paradigm: what might best be termed the unity-in-diversity paradigm. This new paradigm argues that true unity lies not in homogenization of difference, but in demonstration of respect for the various differences among people and groups, and a willingness to cooperate despite those differences. The unity-in-diversity paradigm has gained great currency in many sectors of American life, including the ELCA. At its inception, the ELCA instituted policies to facilitate and maintain racial and gender diversity throughout its many governing structures. In speeches and in print, Lutheran leaders across the church have put a high value on diversity, consistently maintaining that diversity is not a threat to unity, but in reality an enhancement of it.
How strange is it then to find that the ELCA has grounded its proposed ecumenical agreement with the Episcopal Church USA in the outmoded and problematic melting pot, or unity = uniformity theory of ecumenism. Lutheran leaders now appear to regard diversity as a curse rather than a blessing when it comes to issues of polity and doctrine of ministry, even when the differing structures of ministry in question are both clearly within the bounds of orthodoxy, normed by Scripture and the ecumenical creeds. As it stands, CCM is utterly inconsistent with the diversity/inclusivity trajectory of the ELCA over the past ten years. It is one thing to ask Lutherans to respect the Episcopal ministry tradition, including the historic episcopate, but it’s quite another to force them to adopt it for themselves as a condition for cooperation. One cannot help but wonder whether this retrograde motion toward enforced uniformity, rather than mutual respect for diversity, is a foretaste of more feasts to come from Lutheran leaders. Those who have benefited from the ELCA’s commitment to diversity, persons of color and women, as well as others who value those voices, have every right to be concerned about the sincerity and depth of the Church’s future commitments to diversity.
One of the most exciting things that has emerged out of that concern and love for our church is an alternative proposal to CCM, called the Mahtomedi Resolution, which has spread like wildfire across the ELCA, capturing the hopes and dreams of vast numbers of Lutherans. The Mahtomedi Resolution has been signed by thousands of people around the country including Lutheran college presidents, lay people, pastors and seminary professors. Why the overwhelmingly positive response to the Mahtomedi Resolution? Because, unlike CCM, it appeals to the primary concerns and commitments of large numbers of both liberals and conservatives in the ELCA. The Mahtomedi Resolution is a grass roots effort to come up with an ecumenical proposal that takes seriously commitments to mission, diversity, and ecumenism, without compromising our theological tradition. Mahtomedi does not demand that the ELCA’s bishops take on the historic episcopate to conform to Episcopal structures. And it certainly does not demand that Episcopalians give up their own self-understanding of ministry. Instead, it calls upon both churches to respect and affirm each other’s ordained ministries as different, yet fully valid. The Mahtomedi Resolution is a win-win proposal; it provides the ELCA with an opportunity for inter-denominational unity without risking intra-Lutheran fracture. It affirms the validity of Episcopal ministry structures without compromising Lutheran structures. It respects a diversity of ministry structures, precisely for the sake of mission. Most important, it recognizes that unity is not something to be constructed by a committee, but something that we have already been given by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, through the on-going presence of the Holy Spirit. As Luther wrote in the Small Catechism, “The Holy Spirit…calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth and preserves it in union with Jesus Christ in the one true faith.”
Imagine how different the last three years would have been for the ELCA if we had been bold enough to forge a Lutheran/Episcopal ecumenical agreement that moved beyond the outdated melting-pot paradigm of ecumenism. Imagine an agreement, inspired by Jesus’ statement in John 15:5, “I am the Vine and you are the branches.” Imagine an agreement that regarded each church’s structural and theological particularity as a blessing rather than a curse. Imagine an ecumenical agreement which declared early on that each church’s ministry and polity was valid, efficacious and sanctified by the Spirit to be uniquely effective in certain mission settings, and then got down to the real business of figuring out how best to do cooperative and complimentary missions amidst the pluralism of American culture. It’s high time that we jump out of the melting pot and onto the mission field.