This week I felt compelled to set aside all of the assigned texts before me–those for the “Festival of St. Bartholomew, Apostle” as well as for this “The 16th Sunday after Pentecost”, and reflect seriously upon events of last Sunday.
Christians of all denominations convene assemblies–annually, bi-annually or tri-annually. They do so with varying degrees of gusto and, quite often, with little or no interest generated on the parish level. Lutherans are no exception and even though our own church body, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, was meeting in Philadelphia the better part of the week of August 10th, and historic votes were anticipated, it was business as usual in parishes across the land. Furthermore, while I am confident that a majority of ELCA congregations remembered our church leaders, convention delegates and their convention deliberations in last Sunday morning’s prayers, I suspect that very few pastors committed sermon time to the important issues before that convention.
Pastor Gazzolo did and I am thankful for that! It was an excellent sermon, by the way. I listened to an audio tape of it when I returned to the office last Monday morning. But, even before doing so, I went on the Internet to capture convention news, specifically the results of the votes on separate resolutions favoring “full communion”–first with our brothers and sisters of the Reformed churches and next with the Episcopal Church. I am not embarrassed to tell you that I was in a state of shock for hours after reading the twenty or more pages I printed off the ELCA’s “web site.” In fact, when I first saw Barbara later in the morning I said, “What happened? Who’s going to call and what should we say?” I was referring to a call that one of us would have to make to Father George Counsel, Rector of Lake Forest’s Church of the Holy Spirit regarding the narrow defeat of the “Lutheran / Episcopal Concordat.”
Barbara and I decided that we would speak to our Episcopal colleagues that afternoon at a clergy reception honoring Pastor Schliepsiek (Faith Lutheran Church, Lutheran Church Missouri Synod.) Four o’clock came. Barbara and I were sitting together at a table in Lake Forest Hospital’s new reception hall when George Counsel and his assistant, Alan Gates, entered the room. Eye contact was made all around and George smiled at Barbara and me and said, for all to hear, something like, “I believe the Lutherans here present owe the Episcopalians a hug!”
As George and I embraced he said : “Tony, we won’t let this die on the vine. As Bishop Griswold said immediately following your convention vote : ‘The future of cooperation between Lutherans and Episcopalians will be determined in the parishes and not on the floor of a convention.’”
So that there will be no misunderstanding, let me say this. Had I a vote last Sunday, I would have without hesitation voted for the adoption of both resolutions, Reformed and Episcopal. Had I an opportunity to influence the delegates, clergy or laity, I would have done so with every bit of energy and passion I could muster. I had neither a vote nor an opportunity to move even one delegate. And, while I accept that we must respect the decisions and actions of those who served as delegates to this biennial convention of our church, I am obviously very disappointed and more than a little embarrassed. Do I remain hopeful about the long-term future of ecumenical relations? Absolutely! And yet, for the moment, I am gravely concerned.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, more than any other church in the land was recognized as having the theological credibility and the corporate will to bridge the gaps. Frankly, both our credibility and our will are now in question. Not just among Episcopalians whom we courted and then jilted by a 6 vote margin and who, following an overwhelming majority vote at their earlier convention, were left standing at “the altar of full communion” like a bride waiting for the bridegroom. We are suspect among those Christians with whom we are now in full communion as well–churches that were looking to us to build bridges that would one day unite them with the Episcopal Church, and perhaps someday even with Roman Catholics.
In my opinion we have neither the theological nor political self-understanding to undertake that task! Ecumenical bridge building may have to be left to others or be postponed indefinitely. We have, for the time being, lost our window of opportunity to lead in that dimension. The reasons are fairly clear.
- First, as a church, we are more divided than almost anyone within the leadership of our church imagined.
- Secondly, there is within our church–even among our most respected theologians–a woeful lack of understanding relative to what the “God of the Ages.” in his or her wisdom, holds up to mankind as of eternal importance–that which might move his stars just a bit.
I am sure that there are many individuals smarter than I willing to argue the point, but trust me on this. God does not concern himself with who might ordain his priests and how they are thought to be empowered (except by his Spirit)–whether some who are set apart as bishops should alone ordain or whether one humble pastor could indeed ordain another.
If a preoccupation with such matters is what kept even six let alone 351 convention delegates from voting in favor of full communion with the Episcopal Church (and I believe this is at the heart of it all) there is most certainly weeping in heaven. The issue of apostolic succession, pro or con, simply will not move the stars in God’s heavens, and if Episcopalians are asking us to look more closely at that historic order for ministry, why not take a closer look at it? To be ordained by a bishop who can trace his lineage all the way back to Peter, as my ordaining bishop of the Augustana Lutheran Church could, will not make me any more or less a pastor, just as it does not make him any more or less or a bishop! So let’s not create obstacles that one day will be seen as tiny specks on the vast canvass of Church history. Are we medieval peasants, unaccustomed to dealing with authority and authority figures, afraid of the church’s hierarchy and what it might do? Hardly! When and if any one of you decided that church leadership, at any level, was abusing its power and you believed that circumstances would never change for the better, you would simply walk right out that door and not come back! And, how the church is ordered from top to bottom, bottom to top, could not keep you from walking.
Several days have passed since the assembly adjourned. Delegates have returned to their homes, our church leaders to Michigan Avenue and Higgins Road, and I have gradually come to grips with the close vote rejecting the Episcopal/Lutheran Concordat. What I cannot yet make sense of, however, is the overwhelming approval, by the same convention delegates, of the resolution to accept full communion with Reformed churches. A decision which, I repeat, I fully support but which makes no sense given the decision not to accept full communion with the Episcopal Church.
Does not this action mean that the majority of those who were against full communion with Episcopalians (with whom we are in full doctrinal agreement concerning the Sacrament of Holy Communion), were in favor of full communion with Presbyterians, the Reformed Church in America and the United Church of Christ (with whom there remain long standing doctrinal disputes concerning the same sacrament?) Bishops and priests aside, I’m talking about Holy Communion in the purest sense, “the eating and the drinking of the body and blood of Jesus Christ!”
Let me emphasize: Any dispute we may have with Reformed churches concerning the “real presence” of Christ in the Eucharist is not an issue that would have kept me from voting in favor of “full communion” with them. I agree with the position Pastor Gazzolo took in last Sunday’s sermon: “We come to that communion rail with whatever understanding of Christ’s presence we can put together in our limited way!” I am simply struggling to understand why assembly delegates gave greater weight to a question of church order, namely the exclusive right of bishops to ordain, than to the central question of sacramental theology (when, where and how is Christ present in the Lord’s Supper?”).
It would seem to me that questions of church order have more to do with human authority and the question of “real presence” with divine power. I ask you: Which do you think is of greater consequence in the grand scheme of things, authority and order in the church or the forgiving, empowering, saving presence of Christ in the Sacrament of Holy Communion? Which, in your humble layman’s opinion, might move the stars?
Some who cast these votes of obvious inconsistency say: “So what!” It’s not the end of the world!” Of course it isn’t! Just the same, history will show that what we have just witnessed is a wrong headed step backward by a body of Lutherans that has always prided itself for its bold steps forward. In the history of the Faith, Christian men and women have never lacked for excuses. But why should Lutherans of the ELCA now, at this crucial juncture in the life of the Church behave so foolishly? What will be our excuse for failing to give lively expressing to the inclusive Christ of the Gospel in a world that is experiencing, more and more, deadly denominational-exclusivity?
One excuse that I saw reported in a news account is that most delegates from the Upper Midwest have had little exposure to and experience with ecumenical cooperation. Lutherans are so dominant within their communities they have never felt a need to find “common ground” with their church neighbors, least of all with a denomination a fraction of their size (no matter how affluent or influential its members). Well, I am not ready to accept that excuse because I don’t believe that the 300+ Lutherans who made up the “opposition minority” could be that narrowly provincial.
In my search for a better explanation I settled on this very real possibility: I am convinced that a growing number of devout Lutherans are simply ill-informed about how confessional Lutheranism should relate to Scripture–how doctrinal positions can be held and defended only in the revealing light of the Gospel. Consequently, we have become a church like so many others–moving (or not moving) by whim and wave rather than by the Spirit.
The leaders of both the Reformed and Episcopal churches openly acknowledge that they have long appreciated the firm foundations of Lutheranism that help them define their doctrinal positions and from which dialogue between so many churches is sustained and ever greater consensus can grow. The Reformed Churches must be more confused than I am by what has taken place. News releases say that while the leaders of the Presbyterian Church, the Reformed Church in America and the United Church of Christ celebrated our convention’s somewhat surprising endorsement of full communion with them, they were deeply saddened and bewildered by the unexpected rejection of full communion with the Episcopal church with which we have had far longer discussion, closer ties, and far greater agreement.
I’m always searching for illustrations to make a sermon point :
A bishop, so the story goes, was presiding over the liturgy in a large cathedral. He sensed that the microphone wasn’t working properly, and as he was about to begin the traditional “The Lord be with you,” he tapped the mike several times. Hearing nothing and convinced that he was speaking into a dead mike, he said, “There’s something wrong with this blasted microphone.” To which the people responded, “And also with you.”
It may seem harsh, but I view the actions taken by the delegates to the ELCA’s Philadelphia Convention as illustrated by the story of that bishop. There is something wrong with us as a church, at least as a church in convention, when we allow impatience, frustration and ego to govern our decision making.
So, where do we go from here? Well, we continue to talk to each other–Lutherans and Episcopalians, Lutherans and Roman Catholics, Lutherans and Orthodox–whoever is willing to share their faith toward greater Christian understanding and unity.
We must not take our new relationship with the Reformed Churches for granted. We must build upon what has now been established and, at the same time, renew efforts to resolve the perceived differences that keep Lutherans and Episcopalians apart.
Further, let me say I don’t want to imply that those who voted to reject the Lutheran/Episcopal Concordat acted irresponsibly. I believe they took their role as delegates to a Churchwide Assembly very seriously. I would simply suggest that we all need to return to our catechisms and rediscover the catholicity, the universality, of Luther’s faith.
- the inclusiveness that, given time, I believe would have allowed Luther to work toward Christian unity much more deliberately than have the churches which bear his name—even a unity with Rome.
- a love for Christ’s Church on earth that would have awakened the other “reformation churches” to the necessity that they find a way down that same road; a road which I happen to believe is wide enough to accept the Church’s historic episcopacy without fear and trembling among Lutherans.
If we are willing to do this kind of self-examination I am confident that we will soon be walking side by side with our Episcopal brothers and sisters nationally and our Anglican brothers and sisters worldwide–walking together with those of the Reformed churches and, who knows, perhaps others far less catholic than we. We will walk not necessarily to Rome, but toward “Rome,” and toward Constantinople, as our Roman Catholic and Orthodox brothers and sisters meet us all somewhere along the way.