The first round of Lutheran-Episcopal Dialogue (LED) in the United States began exactly thirty years ago in 1969. LED I was established to explore the possibilities of dialogue. Instead, it concluded with a report that so much agreement exists between Lutheran and Episcopal Churches “in matters theological, liturgical, creedal, in sacramental life and practice, as well as to the place and role of the ordained ministry,” that the two traditions ought to recognize each other “as a true communion of Christ’s body possessing a truly apostolic ministry.” That was in 1972.
The Churches didn’t know what to do with this report. So they initiated a second round of dialogues in 1976, in which I was a participant. After casting about for a couple of meetings trying to discern what LED II ought to do, it was decided to draft joint confessional-type statements that indicated the degree of our doctrinal consensus. So the participants in LED II drafted joint statements on Justification, on the Gospel, on Eucharistic Presence, on the Authority of Scripture, and on Apostolicity. The choice of these topics was to cover what the Augsburg Confession, Article 7, and the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral laid down as necessary conditions for church unity. The Dialogue concluded in 1981 with recommendations “that our respective Church bodies mutually recognize one another as true churches where the Gospel is truly preached and sacraments duly celebrated;” that “our respective Churches work out a policy of interim eucharistic hospitality so that Episcopalians may be welcomed at Lutheran altars and Lutherans may be welcomed at Episcopalian altars,” that joint worship be authorized and encouraged along the lines recommended in the Report of the International Lutheran-Anglican Conversations; that the reports and recommendations of LED I and LED II be publicized; that local covenants be established to encourage joint worship and mission; and that a third series of Lutheran-Episcopalian Dialogues be held to develop models for implementing LED I and LED II, and that further discussion “focus on mutually accepted order for ministry, with attention given to the role and office of bishop, diaconal ministry and the ministry of the laity.”
The recommendations of LED II resulted in the Agreement of 1982 between the Episcopal Church and the former American Lutheran Church and the former Lutheran Church in America. In this Agreement the Churches recognized each other as Churches in which the gospel is preached and taught, encouraged the development of common Christian life, initiated an “interim Sharing of the Eucharist,” and looked forward to a relationship of “full communion (communio in sacris/altar and pulpit fellowship)”. This was a momentous step in Lutheran ecumenical relationships because it was the first time that Lutherans said that the eucharist could be shared if there is sufficient agreement rather than complete agreement in doctrine, and that such sharing could lead to further unity. A third round of Lutheran-Episcopal Dialogue was established to explore the implications of the gospel, the historic episcopate, and the ordering of ministry (bishops, priests, and deacons) in the total context of apostolicity.
Amid much euphoria over the Agreement of 1982, LED III was convened in 1983 and finished its work in 1991. It was widely said in ecumenical circles at that time that if Lutherans and Episcopalians couldn’t achieve full communion, no one could, since we shared so much in common in both doctrine and church life. Implications of the Gospel was published in 1988. In this dialogue Lutherans and Episcopalians actually did theology together. Implications systematically explored: the eschatological grounding of the Gospel, the God of the Gospel, the Church of the Gospel, the World and the Gospel, and the Mission of the Gospel. In my opinion there is no other ecumenical agreed statement that is as comprehensive in its theological scope.
Implications of the Gospel laid the necessary foundation for what followed next: Toward Full Communion and Concordat of Agreement in 1991. These reports offered a way to break the impasse between Lutherans and Episcopalians on ministry and proposed the necessary actions of each Church body that would bring them into full communion; a way for the ELCA to receive the historic episcopate and the three-fold ordering of ministry; while the Episcopal Church would temporarily suspend the provision in its Ordinal of 1662 in this case only that “no persons are allowed to exercise the offices of bishop, priest, or deacon in this Church unless they are so ordained, or have already received such ordination with the laying on of hands by bishops who are themselves duly qualified to confer Holy Orders” and they agreed that bishops serve under the authority of the gospel and should submit to periodic review.
Why was it felt that the historic episcopate and the three-fold ordering of ministry would not be a problem for American Lutherans? It was felt that the historic episcopate would not be a problem for American Lutherans because the Lutheran Confessions are not opposed to it. Article 28 of the Augsburg Confession sought to reform the episcopal office, not abolish it. It wanted to separate the temporal and spiritual power of bishops. It held that bishops exercise temporal authority by human right (specifically by imperial or royal appointment or, in our case, by constitutional duties). But the Confession also maintained that the bishops exercise spiritual authority by divine right. The Augsburg Confession teaches, and I quote from the German text, “According to divine right…it is the office of the bishop to preach the Gospel, forgive sins, judge doctrine and condemn doctrine that is contrary to the Gospel, and exclude from the Christian community the ungodly whose wicked conduct is manifest. All this is to be done not by human power but by God’s Word alone.” There are those who are pitting “the Word alone” against the historic episcopate, but the only use of the phrase “Word alone” that I find in the Confessions is to validate the divine right of bishops to exercise the ministry of the Gospel in word and sacrament. Furthermore, says our Confession, “on this account parish ministers and churches are bound to be obedient to the bishops according to the saying of Christ in Luke 10:16, “He who hears you hears me.” Of course, where the bishops teach or introduce anything contrary to the Gospel, they are not owed the obedience of pastors and congregations. This was the situation of the Reformation where bishops did not teach the Gospel, did not appoint evangelical pastors, and even killed evangelical preachers. Nevertheless, Article 14 of the Apology of the Augsburg Confession testifies “to our deep desire to maintain the church polity and various ranks of the ecclesiastical authority. We know that the Fathers had good and useful reasons for instituting ecclesiastical discipline in the manner described in the ancient canons.” In the light of our Confessions, where bishops teach and promote the Gospel, there is no reason not to put ourselves under them.
We also noted that some Lutheran church bodies have retained the historic episcopate, or bishops in the apostolic succession. This includes not only the Churches of Sweden and Finland, but also of Norway and Iceland and the Baltic countries which are restoring the historic episcopate through the provisions of the Porvoo Agreement. Also, several other Lutheran Churches have received the historic episcopate, among them the Lutheran Churches in Tanzania, Jordan and El Salvador. Since some sister Lutheran Churches with which the ELCA is in full communion have the historic episcopate, it did not seem that it would be raised as a church-dividing issue.
As for the three-fold ordering of ministry, this was the recommendation of the World Council of Churches Faith and Order Commission Lima Statement, Baptism, Eucharist, Ministry issued in 1982. The proposal of the three-fold ordering of ministry was an effort to achieve consensus in the divisive area of church polity by going back to the practice of the ancient church. The notion of one sacrament of orders—focused on ordination to the priesthood—is the legacy of medieval scholastic theology. Since there had to be seven sacraments in the scholastic system, there was only room for one sacrament of orders. In this system the diaconate was demoted to being a stepping-stone to the priesthood rather than a ministry in its own right, and the bishop came to be regarded simply as a priest with a wider jurisdiction. This is not just the view of Martin Luther; it was the view of Thomas Aquinas. Presbyterianism and parochialism are products of the medieval ecclesiastical development in the town and country sociology of pre-modern Western Europe. But they are not the practice of the ancient church, which had developed an urban model in which the baptized people of the city assembled around their elected bishop, who was assisted by presbyters in the ministry of word and sacrament in various parochia around the city, and who had a corps of deacons ministering to the physical needs of the church’s members. In view of the mission needs caused by modern urbanization as well as the ecumenical momentum generated by the Lima Statement, it was felt in the 1980s that the three-fold ministry of bishops, pastors, and deacons would gain widespread acceptance—perhaps even in the structure of the New Lutheran church that was constituted in 1987.
The ELCA came into existence without embracing the three-fold order of ministry or even resolving all the polity differences between its predecessor bodies. But there was still hope that the six-year Study of the Ministry being undertaken would result in the implementation of this ecumenical breakthrough on matters of church polity. That, of course, did not happen. The Study was undertaken with little reference to the relationship of the ELCA to other church bodies. Nor did it resolve confusions about the meaning or ordination or the offices of bishop and deacon. Given this outcome, there was some revision of the text of the Concordat of Agreement that was submitted to the General Convention of the Episcopal Church and the Churchwide Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in 1997. Specifically, the ELCA was not required to implement the three-fold order of ministry among the actions that would bring it into full communion with the EC.
The genius of the Concordat of Agreement (perhaps it was too ingenious) was to develop a process by which the ELCA would receive the historic episcopate while the EC would suspend the provision in its Ordinal barring from its service ministers not ordained by bishops in the historic succession so that the EC would receive the ordained ministers of the ELCA into the service of the EC without reordination and by that act indicate agreement with the ELCA that the historic episcopate is not essential for church unity. However, in local, regional, and churchwide discussions, it became clear that the proposals in theConcordat were subject to various interpretations. This undoubtedly contributed to the fact that the Concordat failed by six votes to be ratified by two-thirds of the ELCA Churchwide Assembly, although it had been overwhelmingly ratified by the General Convention of the EC just three weeks earlier.
Nevertheless, the ELCA Churchwide Assembly moved to continue the arrangement of interim eucharistic sharing and cooperation in mission and authorized a drafting committee to work on a revision of the Concordat in consultation with consultants from the EC. A drafting team of three persons from each church body prepared Called to Common Mission as a basis for full communion between the ELCA and the EC. The ELCA Church Council voted in November 1998 to transmit a resolution to the 1999 Churchwide Assembly for action that would accept CCM as a basis for full communion with the EC.
The result is a much clearer and leaner text. It clarifies “full communion” as a “relation between distinct churches in which each recognizes the other as a catholic and apostolic church holding the essentials of Christian faith,” a relationship in which the churches “become interdependent while remaining autonomous,” a relationship in which mission and ministry can be shared according to the mutual needs and opportunities. It locates ordained ministry firmly within the context of the ministry of the whole people of God, affirms that there is one ministry of Word and Sacrament, specifically says that “The ordination of deacons, deaconesses, or diaconal ministers by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is not required by this Concordat, “recognizes the need for a ministry of oversight (episkope), and supplies a definition of “historic succession” as a ‘tradition which goes back to the ancient church, in which bishops already in succession install newly elected bishops with prayer and the laying-on-of-hands.” It affirms that each Church “remains free to explore its particular interpretations of the ministry of bishops in evangelical and historic succession.” It provides that, in accordance with Canon 4 of the First Council of Nicea, “at least three bishops already sharing in the sign of the Episcopal succession” shall be invited to participate in the installation of the next presiding bishop of the ELCA. These bishops shall be “from churches in the Lutheran communion which share in the historic episcopate” but that, in addition, at least one bishop from The Episcopal Church shall be invited “to participate in the same way as a symbol of the full communion now shared.” The ELCA agrees to make the constitutional and liturgical arrangements to specify that bishops shall participate in all ordinations, although other pastors are not excluded from participating in the laying on of hands (as is usually done in our synod anyway).
The provision for receiving the historic episcopate was the most controverted aspect of the defeated Concordat, and its inclusion in the revised Concordat has occasioned even more opposition. Some have asked that the provision be removed from CCM. It should be clear that CCM is the ELCA’s proposal, and is subject to amendment. The EC has no official proposal of its own because the last time its General Convention met, it approved the Concordat of Agreement. However, for the EC to enter into full communion with another Church body without the historic episcopate would entail breaking communion with the Anglican Communion and turning away from the large majority of Christendom which maintains the historic succession of bishops. It is highly unlikely that a proposal for full communion without the historic episcopate would be approved by the General Convention of the EC.
In view of the opposition to CCM, and the proposal of an alternative resolution to that of the ELCA Church Council to come before the Churchwide Assembly in Denver, there is an even chance that full communion with the EC will fail yet again, since the ELCA would have no proposal to forward to the General Convention of the EC. The Mahtomedi Resolution that is being offered as an alternative to CCM does not propose “full communion.”
At a joint national meeting in Rochester, NY in May of 1999, the ecumenical officers of Episcopal dioceses and the ELCA synods brain stormed about the challenges to mission that our Churches face and the mission possibilities that could result from a relationship of full communion. I have disseminated that list here. I also want to call attention to the fact that whatever cooperative initiatives currently exist in local, regional, or national expressions of the Churches can only be regarded as provisional, since the Agreement of 1982 is an “interim” agreement.
In the above remarks, I addressed the issue of the historic episcopate from the standpoint of our ecumenical relations with The Episcopal Church. Here I want to register my disappointment that the ELCA did not do much to educate our people about such issues as the apostolic succession, the historic episcopate, and the role and function of the office of bishop. Some have argued that the two issues of the introduction of the historic episcopate into the ELCA and full communion with The Episcopal Church should have been treated separately. I agree with this. I do not believe that we should receive the historic episcopate only because it is required in order to have full communion with The Episcopal Church. I believe we should receive this gift because it is the preferred polity in our Confessions and because it symbolizes what we need as we enter the 21st century of the Christian mission; a church with a human face. What unifies us in Christian fellowship is not just documents and structures, but pastors who represent in their person the whole tradition of the gospel and who give apostolic leadership to the church in mission. We could do worse than to receive the pastoral episcopate that is exemplified in The Episcopal Church.