As of now the 1997 Churchwide Assembly of the ELCA is scheduled to make decisions on two momentous ecumenical proposals: full communion (altar and pulpit fellowship) with The Episcopal Church and with three Churches in the Reformed tradition (the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Reformed Church in America, and the United Church of Christ). Both of these proposals are the result of three rounds of dialogue beginning in the late 1960s. Three rounds of dialogue with The Episcopal Church have produced the conclusion that there are no church-dividing issues between Lutherans and Anglicans. Three rounds of dialogue with the Reformed Churches have produced the conclusion that historic church-dividing issues have been transcended by theological developments in the twentieth century.
In both cases, these conclusions have been corroborated by the results of international discussions. In both cases, we in the ELCA will consider these proposals in the light of full communion/fellowship agreements that have been reached elsewhere. In 1973 the Leuenberg Agreement brought the German Lutheran and Reformed Churches into altar and pulpit fellowship. Currently the Porvoo Agreement is bringing the four Anglican Churches of Great Britain and Ireland and the Nordic Lutheran Churches of Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Estonia into full communion (Latvia has yet to vote, and Denmark voted down participation for now). This creates a great deal of pressure for our Churches in America to move on these issues.
We are being asked by the Concordat of Agreement whether we do, in fact, share a common understanding of the gospel with the Episcopal Church. We are being asked whether, for the sake of greater unity, we can follow the lead of our confession when it declares that we adopt traditional church polity for the sake of unity whenever doing so does not compromise the gospel (see especially the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Article XIV). We are asked if we can adopt the historic episcopate over a period of time. We would not require ordinands of the Episcopal Church to subscribe to the unaltered Augsburg Confession, although they would have to teach in accordance with it if they were serving a Lutheran congregation. Certain constitutional changes would be required to provide that all bishops would sit in the Conference of Bishops, even if they are no longer active (e.g. by reason of retirement or loss of election), and that only bishops would ordain clergy. The Episcopal Church is being asked, in the case of the ELCA only, to set aside the provision in its Ordinal that requires all ministers who serve in that Church to be ordained by bishops in apostolic succession.
We are being asked by A Common Calling whether the historic differences between Lutheran and Reformed Churches (e.g. predestination, the real presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper) should still divide our Churches today. If they should not, then should we not recognize each other as churches in which the gospel is rightly preached and the sacraments rightly administered? Should we not withdraw any historic condemnations by one side against the other as inappropriate for our situation today? If this is done, then should we not also recognize each other’s ministries and make provision for the sharing of ministries (altar and pulpit fellowship)?
It must be understood that full communion/fellowship is not merger. The identity of each church body and tradition remains intact. Even in the exchange or sharing of ministries (e.g. a minister on the roster of one churc body pastoring one or more congregations in a different church body), the liturgical, catechetical, doctrinal, and polity traditions of each congregation are to be respected. So a Lutheran pastor serving an Episcopal parish would be expected to use The Book of Common Prayer. A Lutheran pastor serving a Presbyterian congregation would be expected to use The Book of Common Worship. A Reformed pastor or an Episcopal priest serving an ELCA congregation would use the Lutheran Book of Worship or whatever other items the congregation uses in worship. And, yes, an Episcopal priest or a Reformed pastor teaching a Lutheran confirmation clas would have to teach Luther’s Catechism. Conversely, an ELCA pastor teaching an Episcopal or Reformed confirmation class would have to use the catechism of the respective tradition.
Obviously, these provisions call for more joint seminary instruction in liturgics, catechetics, and confessions. We will have to know one another’s traditions as well as our own. Maybe by learning the traditions of others we will come to better understand and appreciate our own better.
To keep these proposed fellowship relationships in perspective it is important to note that we have had experience with altar and pulpit fellowship before. Before the formation of the ELCA, the three predecessor church bodies were in full communion wiht one another. The exchange of ministers and the sharing of ministry was a possibility and was practiced in some situations. Ironically, under the proposed agreements with the Episcopal and the three Reformed Churches, it might actually be easier for a minister in those church bodies to serve an ELCA congregation that it was then, for example, for an ALC pastor to serve an LCA congregation.
Why is full communion/altar and pulpit fellowship desired? We know that Christian unity is not our choice; it is Christ’s desire, expressed in his high priestly prayer, “that they may be one” (John 17:21). Ecumenism is not an option for the church at any level of expression–local, regional, national, or global. Ecumenism is nothing less than the effort on our part to discern the unity that the Holy Spirit gives to the Church. But does that unity have to be expressed in the ecclesiastical-political act of establishing full communion?
Ecumenical strategy is determined by missionary needs. When Jesus prayed that his followers would be one as he and the Father are one, it was “so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” Missionary imperative has motivated the ecumenical quest since the beginning of the twentieth century. It was The World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh, 1910, that initiated the series of world meetings that led to the formation of the World Council of Churches in 1948.
Developing strategies to deal with our missionary situation in North America at the end of the twentieth century should be a major factor in making ecumenical decisions. This requires an assessment of what our missionary situation is. It is said that we live in a post-Christian society. But we need to understand what “post-Christian” means in our American cultural context.
“Post-Christian” in Europe refers to the emergence of a secular culture that has replaced the culture of Christendom. This has brought with it the actual or de facto disestablishment of the Churches. The American nation has been officially secular since 1789 when the US Constitution enshrined the principle of separation of church and state. (This did not immediately apply to individual states, and Congregational Church remained established in several New England states until the eraly nineteenth century.) On the Other hand, our culture is pervasively shaped by religions, ranging from denominations of major world religions to secular humanism and neo-paganism. Polls consistently indicate that the overwhelming majority of Americans believe in God and pray, and nearly half of these attend public worship regularly. So “post Christian” cannot mean the same thing in American society as it means in European countries.
Christian missioaries in every society have had to deal with indigenous religions and spiritualities. Is there a dominant religiosity or spirituality in our society? I have found the critique of Harold Bloom in The American Religion (Simon and Shuster, 1992) especially helpful in assessing the religious situation in which the Christian mission is pursued in our society. Bloom suggests that “post-Christian” in America refers not only to the official secularism of our government and the religious pluralism of our culture, but also to the emergence of a prevailing form of christianity in our society that owes little to historic Christianity. This form of Christianity is pervasively gnostic in character and Pelagian in ethos. Gnostic elements include a sense of alienation from nature, from history, from community, and from politics. These result in a low tolerance for sacramental life, the historic liturgy, the mundane complexities of church life, and traditional polities. Since the gnostic seeks salvation through “knowledge” rather than through a saving relationship, the gnostic is prone to the Pelagian style works-righteousness.
Given this missionary context, what teaching best expresses the gospel of Christ? Sacramental realism or sacramental symbolism? What strategy best preserves and extends the gospel? Embracing our culture or standing over against it? What forms best celebrate and express the gospel? Free church worship or liturgical worship? What kind of polity best builds up the fellowship of the gospel as a community in mission? One with a sense of continuity in the apostolic mission or one that expresses local sovereignty or representative democracy? What other Christian communities can best serve as our allies in the propagation of the faith in this context?
These pragmatic missionary factors and theological commitments will help to determine the ecumenical decisions we must make in 1997. Three sets of Reformation Churches have the chance to come together, but they offer different ways of life and they embody different approaches to mission. We Lutherans are caught between them, with elements in our church life common to both the Episcopal and the Reformed traditions as well as elements that are unique to our Lutheran confessional witness. Can we enter into altar and pulpit fellowship with both Episcopal and Reformed Churches simultaneously? Is the time right to enter into fellowship with either of these communions? Is the political tack of declaring full communion the best way to express Christian unity?
To a great extent these decisions will be based on where we are as a church body now in our life and mission. Who are we and what are we called to proclaim and celebrate in our missionary context in secular, religiously-pluralistic, neo-pagan , syncretistic America? Can one or both of these other traditions enrich and empower our sense of identity and mission? Or, might fellowship with one or the other or both of these Churches confuse our identity and blunt our sense of the mission of the gospel in our cultural context?
The ecumenical decisions of 1997 are finally decisions about our own sense of identity and mission as a community of faith, an identity and mission which is not just of our own choosing.