One of the issue editors of Let’s Talk invited me to respond to the failure of the Churchwide Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America to approve the Concordat of Agreement by answering two questions:
- Is it desirable for The Episcopal Church to have full communion with The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America?
- If so, can this happen without the ELCA somehow embracing the historic episcopate?
In answer to the first question, I want wholeheartedly to embrace the desirability of being in full communion with the ELCA on the basis of the Concordat of Agreement and the years of mutual prayer and theological reflection which it represents.
By way of beginning an answer to the second question, we need to enjoy the ironies of the present ecumenical moment.
First, I write as an Episcopal priest ordained by a bishop in apostolic succession through the historic episcopate, which is the gift which the Concordat extends to the ELCA. And yet, according to the decree of Pope Leo XIII in 1896, “the Sacrament of Order and the true priesthood of Christ has been totally expunged from the Anglican rite…” (Of course, to the Orthodox Churches, the validity of Holy Orders in the Roman Catholic Church is as moot as those in the Anglican Communion because neither of our Churches is in communion with Orthodoxy, which understands itself as possessing uniquely the fullness of the ancient Church.
Second, the ELCA voted to affirm that “the Lutheran condemnations in our confessional documents regarding justification do not apply to the Roman Catholic Church today,” yet entered into full communion with three Reformed Churches whose understandings of the Lord’s Supper, at variance with Lutheran confessional documents, do continue to apply to their Churches today.
Third, while the ELCA thus advanced its ecumenical conversation with the Roman Catholic Church—which would make restoration of the historic episcopate a condition of full communion—, it defeated the Concordat of Agreement which “recognizes now the full authenticity of the ordained ministries presently existing within the [ELCA],” and which, as The Assenting Report stated, “has made it possible, not necessary, for us to propose simultaneously…the joint consecration of future bishops…in the historic episcopal succession.”
The final irony is that the Anglican Church, often stereotyped (to put it most charitably) for its theological carelessness, has faithfully and consistently maintained its eucharistic doctrines in ecumenical conversations, while the ELCA, often stereotyped (to put it most charitably) for its theological integrity, has entered into a Formula of Agreement which “insists that, while remaining differences must be acknowledged, even to the extent of their irreconcilability, it is the inherent unity in Christ that is determinative.”
I offer the following examples of Anglican and Lutheran fidelity to the undivided church’s eucharistic teaching from the Reformation Period through recent ecumenical dialogues up to the present Concordat and Formula documents.
A whimsical verse for the doctrine of the Real Presence attributed variously to Queen Elizabeth I and Richard Hooker:
His was the Word that spake it,
He took the Bread and brake it,
And what his word doth make it,
That I believe and take it.
And from the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion of the Church of England:
XXV. Of the Sacraments.
Sacraments ordained of Christ be not only badges or tokens of Christian men’s profession, but rather they be sure witnesses, and effectual signs of grace, and God’s good will towards us, by the which he doth work invisibly in us, and doth not only quicken, but also strengthen and confirm our Faith in him.
XXVI. Of the Unworthiness of the Ministers, which hinders not the effect of the Sacraments.
Although in the visible Church the evil be ever mingled with the good, and sometimes the evil have chief authority in the Ministration of the Word and the Sacraments, yet forasmuch as they do not the same in their own name, but in Christ’s, and do minister by his commission and authority, we may use their Ministry, both in hearing the Word of God, and in receiving the Sacraments. Neither is the effect of Christ’s ordinance taken away by their wickedness, nor the grace of God’s gifts diminished from such as by faith, and rightly, do receive the Sacraments ministered unto them; which be effectual, because of Christ’s institution and promise, although they be ministered by evil men.
XXVIII. Of the Lord’s Supper.
The Supper of the Lord is not only a sign of the love that Christians ought to have among themselves one to another, but rather it is a Sacrament of our Redemption by Christ’s death: insomuch that to such as rightly, worthily, and with faith, receive the same, the Bread which we break is a partaking of the Body of Christ; and likewise the Cup of Blessing is a partaking of the Blood of Christ.
From Martin Luther’s Brief Confession Concerning the Holy Sacrament (1544):
They [the radical reformers] have (I say) been admonished sharply and often enough. They do not want anything to do with me; therefore I do not want anything to do with them either…
First of all, they were warned right at the outset by the Holy Spirit when they separated into seven spirits in their interpretations of the text, each one differing from the other at all times.
The first spirit, Karlstadt, interpreted the text, “This is my body,” to mean: Here sits my body. Therefore the text should read thus: He took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, Here sits my body which will be given to you…”
The second spirit, Zwingli,…interpreted the text by another holy spirit [emphasis added] of his thus: “Take, eat, This signifies my body which is given for you.” Here “is” had to mean “signifies.”
The third spirit, Oecolampadius…interpreted the text…thus: Take, eat, this is the sign of my body.”…
The sixth holy spirit interprets it thus: “Take, eat, This is my body for a remembrance.”
…at the outset they taught that there was nothing except mere bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper. They scolded us and reviled us in this respect as cannibals, drinkers of blood, Thyestians…and called our Lord the baked God, the God made of bread, the God made of wine, etc., as extant books forever testify.
Recent Ecumenical Dialogues
From “Standards of Eucharistic Sharing,” approved by the 1979 General Convention of the Episcopal Church:
The positive response to the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission’s Agreed Statement on the Eucharist [Windsor 1971] undergirds the strong agreement in this church on the Eucharist as a mystery offered by God to his gathered Church, and the recognition of Christ’s real presence in this sacrament.
They shall approach the Holy Communion as an expression of the Real Presence of Christ whose sacrifice once upon the cross was sufficient for all mankind.
On the pain of broken communion:
One of the realities of life within a divided Church is this very brokenness at the Table of the Lord. There is great temptation to pretend that this is not true…. This is an experience of the Cross in a sinful world. Often it is more appropriate to bear the pain and give testimony to the integrity of the faith and discipline of one’s church than to act as though full unity existed where it does not.
From “Joint Statement of Eucharistic Presence” in Lutheran-Episcopal Dialogue in the U.S.A., Series II (1980):
4. The Church’s celebration of the Eucharist rests upon the Word and authority of Christ, who commands his disciples to remember him in this way until his return. According to his word of promise, Christ’s very body broken on the cross and his very blood shed for the forgiveness of our sins are present, distributed and received, as a means of partaking here and now of the fruit of that atoning sacrifice. This is also the presence of the risen and glorified Christ who pleads for us before the throne of God.
From “Epilogue, VI, Faith and Worship, Church and Eucharist,” in Anglican-Orthodox Dialogue: The Dublin Agreed Statement (1984):
108 (a) We are agreed in describing the Eucharist as an anamnesis and participation in the death and resurrection of Christ.
111 (d) We are agreed that through the consecratory prayer, addressed to the Father, the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of the glorified Christ by the action of the Holy Spirit in such a way that the faithful people of God receiving Christ may feed upon him in the sacrament.
From “Some Proposed Elucidations” to The COCU [Consultation on Church Unity] Consensus: In Quest of a Church Uniting, by the 1988 General Convention of the Episcopal Church.
…the document entirely ignores the issue of the elements [bread and wine] appropriate to the Lord’s Supper as noted by the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral. Similarly, Trinitarian language is safeguarded in the document only with respect to the Creeds and the rite of Holy Baptism, whereas we would want, for example, to ensure its inclusion in the rehearsal of salvation history featured in the Great Thanksgiving of the Eucharist also.
Concordat of Agreement
The Concordat itself does not address eucharistic theology; rather it explicitly states that the ELCA and the Episcopal Church “recognize in each other the essentials of the one catholic and apostolic faith as it is witnessed in the unaltered Augsburg Confession (CA), the Small Catechism, and The Book of Common Prayer of 1979 (including the ‘Episcopal Services’ and ‘An Outline of the Faith’), and as it is summarized in part in Implications of the Gospel…” which includes this paragraph:
47. Two themes are of particular significance for our churches. Lutherans have historically emphasized the “real presence” of Christ’s body and blood for the forgiveness of sins as the heart and center of the Eucharist. The intent behind such an emphasis was to trust the word and promise of Christ, assuring the faithful that it is not their believing which gives meaning to the bread and cup but rather the objective body and blood promised by Christ which is offered to them. In short, faith does not effect the presence of Christ; rather, it receives the promise of Christ…
A Formula of Agreement
Now contrast paragraph 47 of Implications of the Gospel with these paragraphs from the Leuenberg Agreement (1973) cited in the Formula of Agreement:
In the Lord’s Supper the risen Jesus Christ imparts himself in his body and blood, given for all, through his word of promise with bread and wine. He thus gives himself unreservedly to all who receive the bread and wine; faith receives the Lord’s Supper for salvation, unfaith for judgment (Leuenberg Agreement, III.1.8).
We cannot separate communion with Jesus Christ in his body and blood from the act of eating and drinking. To be concerned about the manner of Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper in abstraction from this act is to run the risk of obscuring the meaning of the Lord’s Supper (Leuenberg Agreement, III.1.19).
One cannot help noticing that in both paragraphs the odd syntactical style obscures their semantic substance. For example, what does it mean that “Jesus Christ imparts himself…through his word of promise with bread and wine”? If it means that through his word of promise the bread and wine become his body and blood, why not say it? If it means that Jesus imparts himself through his word of promise which is merely accompanied by the act of eating and drinking, then we have abandoned the Concordat’s “objective body and blood promised by Christ” for a doctrine which holds that it is “believing which gives meaning to the bread and cup,” and that faith effects the presence of Christ. (One further notes that the phrase “his body and blood” is as far removed as grammatically possible from the phrase “bread and wine.”)
Speaking personally, it seems to me that the ELCA’s adoption of the Formula of Agreement tends toward compromising Lutheran fidelity to the undivided church’s eucharistic teaching. Moreover, no Church that has claimed the historic episcopate has ever abandoned that teaching. Consequently, although many Lutherans have questioned the necessity of the historic catholic episcopate, the case can be made that bishops in apostolic succession have in actuality “served the Gospel” by their unerring fidelity to the doctrine of the Holy Eucharist, which, as Luther also maintained, is a sacrament of the gospel.
Therefore, again speaking personally, although I continue to be willing to recognize “now the full authenticity of the ordained ministries presently existing in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America” [emphasis added], I am all the more convinced that the historic episcopal succession is a gift which the ELCA should embrace in order to safeguard its future fidelity to the Lord’s Supper and the Gospel of Jesus Christ as it lives out its full communion with the Reformed Churches, as well as (God willing) with the Episcopal Church.
 “…in 1922 the Ecumenical Patriarchate recognized that Anglican orders possessed the same validity as those of the Roman, Old Catholic, and Armenian Churches, inasmuch as all the essentials are found in them which are held indispensable from the Orthodox point of view for the recognition of the Charisma of the priesthood derived from Apostolic Succession.” Similar recognition was given by the Church of Cypress (1923) and by the Patriarchates of Jerusalem (1923), Alexandria (1930), and Romania (1936). Such recognitions have no practical effect until all Orthodox Churches act and until all recognize that the Anglican Communion is orthodox in faith.” See Handbook for Ecumenism, 1995, Section E: “Inter-Church Relations.”
 Compare Augsburg Confession, X: “…the Body and Blood of Christ are truly present in the Lord’s Supper…” and Smalcald Articles, VI: “The Bread and the Wine at the supper are the true Body and true Blood of Christ, and not only good Christians but the wicked themselves receive them” with the statement of Gregory P. Sammons of Toledo, Ohio in The Wall Street Journal, August, 1997: “As a Presbyterian…We affirm the “Real Presence” of Christ in the Eucharist and celebrate that the true transformation is not that of wafer or chalice but of heart, mind, and life of Christ’s body, the Church. While the ways we understand Christ to be present may differ from our Lutheran, Catholic, and Anglican brothers and sisters, we devoutly affirm and joyously trust that the Lord truly meets us at the Table.”
Concordat of Agreement, 4, and “The Assenting Report” of Lutheran-Episcopal Dialogue, Series III.
“It is highly significant that Luther reports these particular charges against him. At the Last Supper Jesus probably said not “This is my body,” but “This is my flesh” [cf. John 6:51], because for many years Christian writers continued to speak of the Eucharist by referring to Jesus’ flesh and blood. For example, Ignatius of Antioch in Syria (d. ca. 115) uses “flesh” when he wrote about the Eucharist (e.g. Romans 7:3; Philadelphians 4:1), as did Justin Martyr (d. Ca. 150). This talk about eating the flesh of Jesus opened the Christians to the scandalous charge of being cannibals. Justin’s contemporaries, Athenagorus, an Athenian, and Tertullian, an African, both mention that Christians are accused of holding “Thyestian Feasts.” This was a reference to Greek mythology, in which Thyestes was tricked by his brother Atreus into eating his own sons.
“Why would Jesus have used such scandalous language, and why would Christians many centuries later continue to refer to the eucharist as eating the flesh of Jesus and drinking his blood? Because behind the scandal of eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking Jesus’ blood towers the scandal of the crucifixion. The scandal of the Eucharist is the scandal of the Cross.” [From the author’s sermon, August 17, 1997]