I had thought about writing this article before the Synod Assembly because of the interest generated in the process of electing a new bishop. Because I was designated in the Pre-Assembly Canvas as a “potential nominee” for that office, I deferred writing this article. I did have an opportunity to state my views on the episcopal office at the May 19 Forum on the Office of Bishop. It was apparent on the first nominating ballot at the assembly that Paul Landahl would be elected bishop. Perhaps that would have been evident also in the straw poll, if the numbers had been released. That certainly would have alleviated stress on those of us who proved to be not really “potential candidates.” In any event, since I wasn’t a serious candidate for the office of bishop (as far as number of votes is concerned), I’m back to my more accustomed role of being a “voice crying in the wilderness.” So I take up this article that I put aside. But it is still based on the views I shared at the May 19 Forum.
I said at that Forum, “The next bishop we elect in this synod is going to be incorporated into the historic episcopate.” I’m not sure if that is going to happen in our synod, since Paul Landahl’s installation is set for September 22, before the new Presiding Bishop of the ELCA is installed, and will therefore be conducted by H. George Anderson. Perhaps Bishop-elect Landahl will invite three other bishops who are in the apostolic succession to participate in the laying on of hands. I would think, in view of his own ethnic background, that Bishop-elect Landahl would like to have a bishop of the Church of Sweden participating. In any event, unless CCM is called off, sooner or later we will have a bishop who is incorporated into the historic episcopate. My argument is that this is an opportune time to reimagine the office of bishop.
We should reimagine the office along the lines laid down in Article 28 of the Augsburg Confession. What was the principal complaint of the reformers with regard to the office of bishop? They said that the bishops were so taken up with their temporal duties of governance (we would call it administration) that they were neglecting their spiritual duties. They weren’t preaching the gospel and teaching the faith of the church. They weren’t visiting the parishes. If they had visited the parishes, as teams of visitors had done under the authority of the Elector of Saxony in 1528, they would have seen the derelict state of preaching and teaching and sacramental practice. Article 28 does not deny the necessity of governance, but it held that the temporal authority and duties of the bishop exist by human right. On the other hand,
According to divine right it is the office of the bishop to preach the gospel, to forgive sin, to judge doctrine and reject doctrine that is contrary to the gospel, and to exclude from the Christian community the ungodly whose ungodly life is manifest—not with human power but with God’s Word alone. That is why parishioners and churches owe obedience to bishops, according to this saying of Christ (Luke 10:16): “Whoever listens to you listens to me.” But whenever they teach, institute, or introduce something contrary to the gospel, we have God’s command in such a case not to be obedient (Matthew 7:15): “Beware of false prophets.” [Other proof texts follow from 2 Corinthians 13:8, 2 Corinthians 13:10, and the Code of Canon Law, Part II, Question 7. Then:] And St. Augustine writes in the letter against Petilian that one should not obey bishops, even if they have been regularly elected, when they err or teach or command something contrary to the holy, divine Scripture. (German text, Kolb/Wengert edition of The Book of Concord, p. 94.)
Obviously, the thrust of Article 28, apart from distinguishing between the spiritual and temporal aspects of the bishop’s authority, was to defend the Lutherans’ refusal to obey bishops who taught contrary to the gospel (or hindered pastors who did so teach). On the other hand, Article 28 in both the Augsburg Confession and the Apology state the conditions under which they would obey their bishops and preserve the episcopal office.
We American Lutherans have not had to consider the positive aspects of our Confessions’ teaching concerning the office of bishop because we haven’t had any bishops in the sense of Article 28. (The Nordic Lutheran Churches, on the other hand, did implement evangelical episcopates.) Our earliest leaders were seniors of the ministerium (Henry Melchior Muhlenberg’s title) and synod presidents. At first these were not full time positions. (One of my predecessors as Pastor of Fenner Memorial Lutheran Church in Louisville was Harlan K. Fenner, who served as President of the General Synod while also serving as pastor of the then-Second English Lutheran Church.) Seniors or presidents were elected to preside over annual meetings of the ministerium, conference, district, or synod. As time went on, the duties of these offices increased and eventually they became full time.
We did not elect our synod presidents to be bishops. Even though the term “chief pastor” was increasingly used, they were really chief executive officers. Medieval bishops ruled estates; our synod presidents and bishops administered corporations. Either way, these temporal duties exist by human right, no matter how useful or necessary they may be to the organization. But if they prevent the exercise of spiritual duties, then other provisions must be made for corporate administration (such as the appointment of chancellors or archdeacons—or even a full time lay vice president).
But as I see it, the time has come for the synod bishop to exercise the historic role of the bishop to be the chief minister of word and sacraments in this synod by visiting the parishes to preach to the people and celebrate the sacraments with them and to preside over and preach at periodic synodwide celebrations. I admit that this would be a herculean job since it would be barely possible to visit all the congregations of this synod in a six-year term. But ways must be found to make this possible, for at least two reasons. First, we have a very diverse synod. Apart from our common Confessions, what can unite us is having a common pastor who ministers the word and sacraments to all the people of the synod. Second, in this age when people are more interested in seeking God than finding a church, it can’t hurt to emphasize the spiritual aspects of the episcopal office.
Other aspects of the Augsburg Confession’s view of the episcopal office also need to be retrieved today. One is the evaluation of doctrine and practice. All sorts of things are being espoused today which not only might fail the confessional test but actually undermine our witness to the truth of the Scriptures. The bishop’s role as minister of the office of the keys might also play a part in resolving many of the conflicts in our congregations. The fact that bishops and pastors wear stoles goes back to the fact that in the ancient church the bishops held court to effect reconciliation among disputing parties and did such a good job at it (even with pagans) that the Emperor Constantine gave them the insignia of magistrates and senators.
We don’t have to reinvent things to address contemporary problems. Models exist in the tradition. The implementation of the historic episcopate is an opportunity to probe the traditional office of bishop and ecclesiastical polity for solutions to our needs as a church today. Perhaps Bishop Landahl will himself want to move in these directions. Otherwise, I’ll still be crying in the wilderness six years from now.