You invited Bill Roberts and myself, as the ecumenical officers of the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Metropolitan Chicago Synod respectively, to give a report on Lutheran-Episcopal Relationships. The invitation to address this symposium was extended before the votes were taken at our respective church assemblies this past summer. The planners of this symposium probably assumed that the Concordat of Agreement would be passed by the General Convention of The Episcopal Church and the Churchwide Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and that we could report on how full communion between our Churches was being implemented. Now, of course, we can only report that the Concordat was passed overwhelmingly by the two houses of The Episcopal Church and failed by six votes in the Churchwide Assembly of the ELCA; so full communion is not yet in the process of being implemented.
The failure of the ELCA to muster a clear two-thirds majority of its Churchwide Assembly to adopt the Concordat was as much of a surprise to many in the ELCA as it was to The Episcopal Church and the rest of the ecumenical community. The failure to adopt the Concordat even put a damper on the successful passage of the Formula of Agreement between the ELCA and the Reformed Church in America, the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., and the United Church of Christ. Up until the year before the full communion votes, many would have guessed that the Lutheran-Reformed proposal would have had a tougher time passing than the Lutheran-Episcopal proposal. After all, there are no church-dividing theological issues between Lutherans and Anglicans, as there are between Lutherans and the Reformed. Thirty years of national and international bilateral dialogue have declared this to be the case. The Lutheran and Anglican Churches of Northern Europe have entered into full communion on the basis of the Porvoo Agreement. Of course, the Lutheran Churches in Sweden, Finland, Estonia, and Latvia have either retained the historic episcopate or restored it, and the Churches of Norway and Iceland have at least retained an episcopal polity.
Full communion with The Episcopal Church would have required the ELCA to implement the historic episcopate over a period of years. The drafters of the Concordat didn’t see a problem with this since the Lutheran Confessions are not opposed to it if that is part of what is comprehended under “the traditional polity,” which the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Article 14, expresses a desire to retain. The Concordat also committed The Episcopal Church to immediate recognition of the ordained ministry in the ELCA by suspending, in the case of the ELCA only, a three hundred-year-old canon so as not to suggest that anything was being added to the requirements of Christian unity other than the agreement in the Gospel and the Sacraments that Article 7 of the Augsburg Confession says “is enough” (satis est). But it was not enough! Enough members of the ELCA Churchwide Assembly were opposed to implementation of the historic episcopate, as proposed in the Concordat, to scuttle the Agreement.
The Assembly itself was so shocked by the failure of the Concordat just minutes after it had adopted by 80% the Formula of Agreement, that former Governor Al Quie of Minnesota, who had led the floor fight against the Concordat, entered a motion to reconsider the matter. He said he was impressed by the fact that 66.1% of the assembly—a clear majority!— indicated that it could accept the historic episcopate. But the motion to reconsider was decisively defeated–wisely in my opinion, since if it had passed on a second vote, say by a margin of 6, this would have ripped apart the Church. No, the nature of the debate disclosed that Lutherans have a lot of homework to do on this issue. This was reflected in two resolutions that passed overwhelmingly the next day. One resolved to “seek conversations with The Episcopal Church, building on the degree of consensus achieved at this assembly and addressing concerns which emerged during consideration of the Concordat of Agreement. The aim of these conversations is to bring to the 1999 Churchwide Assembly a revised proposal for full communion,” and in the meantime “the 1982 agreement for ‘Interim Eucharistic Sharing’” would “continue to guide joint ministry efforts in worship, education, and mission.” The second resolution requested the Presiding Bishop, Church Council, Department of Ecumenical Affairs, and Conference of Bishops to “create opportunities for dialogue and teaching within the ELCA concerning the possible avenues for full communion with The Episcopal Church.” Such educational possibilities are to be created “in consultation with The Episcopal Church,” with the aspiration of ratifying an agreement for full communion at the 1999 Churchwide Assembly.
Indeed, the issues raised in the discussion of the Concordat must not be studied only by the rank-and-file clergy and laity in the Church; those who must do the teaching also need a more solid understanding. The case for the Concordat was not helped by lack of an answer to a delegate’s question as to why only bishops should ordain, which left the assembly with the impression that the agreement we would require this just to please The Episcopal Church. When delegates expressed concern that the adoption of a more hierarchical model of the church would jeopardize the priesthood of believers, there was no adequate response either in terms of the fact that the church has a hierarchical nature, since it lives under the Lordship of Jesus Christ, the head of his body, or in terms of the true meaning of the priesthood of believers in the Lutheran tradition, which has more to do with Christian vocation in the world than with polity in the church. It apparently didn’t occur to anyone to point out that the Church of Sweden, with its claims of apostolic succession and three-fold order of ministry, also has an impressive praxis of the priesthood of believers even in terms of the governance of the Church. And the argument of a number of ELCA bishops, expressed in a circular letter to the delegates before the Assembly, that these two proposals for full communion were necessary for “mission” was weak, since a word-and-sacrament understanding of the missio Dei was not advanced over the usual understandings of mission as church programs and planning, which we can already do together.
Still, one wonders whether the tactical inadequacies of the Concordat’s managers and proponents could have offset the visceral opposition, especially of those in the Upper Midwest. This is the heartland of what Professor George Lindbeck of Yale has called “denominational Lutheranism.” Denominational Lutherans hold the assumption that the schism of the 16th century is permanent and has among its institutional manifestations a Lutheran Church. It is noteworthy that misgivings were expressed from this quarter about all three ecumenical proposals, including the Joint Declaration on Justification by Faith between the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church that the ELCA passed by a nearly unanimous vote. “Denominational Lutheranism” may be contrasted with the agenda of the evangelical catholics to heal the breach of the 16th century and to work toward reconciliation with the Bishop and Church of Rome. It must be admitted that some of the evangelical catholics did not regard full communion with the Episcopal Church as a way of advancing this agenda. They had misgivings about adopting Anglican orders and about the decision of the church court that tried the Bishop Righter case that separated moral teachings from core doctrines of the faith. However, neither their misgivings (expressed in the Summer 1997 issue of the independent journal, Lutheran Forum) nor the opposition to the Concordat by prominent elder churchmen (also published in the Summer 1997 Lutheran Forum), was really decisive in the defeat of the Concordat. It was defeated by the anti-hierarchical pietism of the Upper Midwest “denominational Lutherans” that has dogged consensus on issues of ecclesiology and ministry since the formation of the ELCA.
I’m sorry to have to air our internal problems in an ecumenical forum, but full communion is an ecclesiastical-political proposal and is therefore subject to the vicissitudes of ecclesiastical politics. I don’t imply by “politics” something seamy and underhanded; since we live in Chicago I need to say that, because here “politics” has a less-than-pure connotation. While, unfortunately, there was a bit of sleaze associated with the campaign against the Concordat, I’m really talking about “politics” as “polity”–the way a community organizes itself and does its business. The fact is that full communion with the Episcopal Church was spiked by the polity decisions resulting from the six-year, multi-million dollar Study of Ministry that was mandated at the formation of the ELCA in order to make the merger possible, and which represents, in my view, a sorry conclusion that precludes moving toward the kind of ecumenical consensus on ministry embodied in the World Council of Churches Faith and Order Statement on Baptism, Eucharist, Ministry. The fact is that the restoration of the historic episcopate and the three-fold ordering of the one divinely-instituted ministry of word and sacrament, as articulated in the BEM document, was considered in the discussions surrounding the formation of the ELCA, but was rejected by the Commission for a New Lutheran Church as something a major segment of Lutherans was not prepared to accept.
The ecumenical establishment has been focused on dialogues in which each side presents its pristine position. I think our understaffed Office of Ecumenical Relations was not prepared to deal with the messier in-house discussions that it will take to pass ecclesiastical-political proposals of full communion. The rest of you need to study what happened in the ELCA and be instructed by it, even though for each of our Churches the neuralgic issues will be different. In the ELCA the depth of feeling about the issues of ministry and polity has been expressed by Gracia Grindal of Luther Seminary, who represents many of her colleagues when she asserts (in the Fall 1997 issue of Dialog), in the face of the massive reflections on the doctrine of the church in 20th century theology, that “Ecclesiology is the dreary science of the theological encyclopaedia, one that Lutherans have generally agreed on until now because of our strong theology of the word alone.” Compromise, in her view, is impossible: “You can’t have the historic episcopate, plus the word alone.” Arguing that we have been asked to give up our unique theological voice in the ecumenical choir, she represents a wide constituency when she claims that “The idea that real bishops because of their ordination receive the charism to effect [sic] the sacrament and make real priests is what this is all about, not the unbroken link with Peter. It’s beyond hierarchy; it’s the theology-izing of power.”
Quite frankly, I don’t know how compromise is possible with this point of view; nor does it lend itself to any ecumenical breakthroughs on issues of polity and ministry. This is the Protestant principle upheld as a position in itself rather than as a corrective to the catholic tradition, such as I understand the Lutheran “solas” to be. A doctrine of the church is impossible to develop from the “word alone.” It has nothing to say about church structures. It does not provide an answer to even such basic questions of church order as: Who preaches the word that convenes the church? Who authorizes someone to exercise the office of the word and the sacraments? How is that office supervised? You may come up with answers quite different from those proposed in the Concordat of Agreement, but you can’t ignore these ecclesiological questions. But there has been no proposal coming from the “denominational Lutherans” other than tinkering with the forms of ministry that emerged in the two emergency situations of the Reformation itself and the need to minister to the congregations that sprang up in American frontier settlements. It should not escape notice that it is in metropolitan areas today that interest in the “traditional” episcopal and diaconal ministries is strongest, and that these ministries are connected more with mission than with privilege.
It has been said that ecumenical work helps one come to terms with one’s own tradition. But we are coming to realize now that our own tradition is not just what is presented in the Confessions; it is also what is held in actuality for other historical reasons (e.g. bad experiences with the hierarchy in the Churches of countries of origin) and what is practiced in actual church life (e.g. the ideology of democracy). One of the problems with the Concordat, such as the impression that the ELCA must adopt the Episcopal Church’s orders of ministry, could be circumvented if the ELCA simply made a decision to acquire the historic episcopate from Lutheran Churches which have it, and with which we are in full communion. But nothing can be done that simply; and the fact is that it is episcop_ that is the problem for American Lutherans.
We have come to remarkable convergences in bilateral dialogues by revisiting confessional documents and conciliar decisions; but the results of those dialogues can founder on the shoals of actual church authority-structures. The highest authority in the ELCA is a 1,000-member Churchwide Assembly that is brought together for a week every two years. Such an Assembly can be subject to mood swings in its own deliberations and in the wider church in which truth becomes almost irrelevant. Even ecumenical councils could be subject to mood swings, but what balances the force of passing moods is an awareness on the part of bishops and theologians that they represent the apostolic tradition in the decisions they must make. The ELCA Churchwide Assembly is not capable of “teaching” with authority, in spite of its constitutional legitimacy, because it is 60% composed of lay people who are not, in the words of the Augsburg Confession, Article 14, “regularly called” to the teaching office of the Church. Responsibility for transmitting the apostolic tradition has not been laid on them, so the collapse of confessional doctrine, ecclesiology, liturgical norms and moral teaching follows as a matter of course. We see this reflected in the decisions of this past summer. This Churchwide Assembly entered into full communion with Churches with whom we do not have agreement in eucharistic faith and practice; it could not seize an opportunity to begin a process of restoring a polity that its own Confession prefers. It did not think to remove from a statement on “The Use of the Means of Grace” a provision that allows bishops to authorize lay persons to preside at the Eucharist. And it was unable to order the Church’s Board of Pensions to stop paying for abortions through its health plan. In each case the decision made required no change of the status quo. I wonder what would have been the fate of the Formula of Agreement if it had required polity changes on our part to be more explicitly presbyterian.
This is the actual ELCA authority structure with which other Churches must deal once we move past the stage of dialogue to the stage of implementing real ecclesiastical-political relationships of full communion. Perhaps there are other ways of expressing church unity than by means of the ecclesiastical-political enactments of full communion. This is something that needs to be explored since the actuality of ELCA church life is reflected in the actuality of other Churches as well. There are no greener pastures. There are only pastures which, in the course of our spiritual journeys, we discover to be truly our own. This was John Henry Newman’s discovery, too, when he concluded that he could not so much find a true Church as a “real” one. As best as I understand him, by “real church” Newman meant one that could act with authority because it had a real magisterium, not an “unreal” one (e.g. like the British Parliament, like a churchwide assembly). As I have studied his life, I have found that Newman’s journey illumines my own confessional and ecumenical journey, perhaps because we are led by the same “kindly Light.” That light shines on the ecumenical path of all of us. Perhaps you too will resonate with the sentiments of Newman’s poem.
Lead, kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom,
Lead thou me on;
The night is dark, and I am far from home;
Lead thou me on:
Keep thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me.