The dialogue between Lutherans and Episcopalians during the past two decades has been, for the most part, carried forward by theologians whose work has placed a proposal for full communion on the agenda of both churches. It is important that lay women and men in both traditions now engage in the dialogue by learning about the substance of the theological discussion and by being in conversation with the people of the other tradition. At its best this conversation will include joint worship and study, and sharing in mission. Lay people so challenged will hear the church language of theologians and of the other tradition. We focus here on that linguistic encounter, sampling some of its surprises and opportunities.
The theological discussion can be placed within reach of adults who have an ordinary catechetical background. Some terminology of the dialogue will probably be new; for example, historic episcopate will likely be a new concept for Lutherans, while Episcopalians may not have used the word confession in the sense of a Reformation-era document. However, the theological language of the dialogue should not present a major problem for lay people in study groups. This is not to say that the issues raised in the dialogue are easily resolved but rather that careful definition of a small number of new terms will permit serious lay men and women to discuss these issues meaningfully.
Beyond deliberate study, it is the every-day language of worship and congregational life that carries potent images for lay people. American Lutherans share a common vocabulary. We use terms such as pastor, Communion, and congregation in the same familiar ways everywhere we gather, and the words are laden with meaning from their associations. Just as the language spoken by the people of a nation is a powerful factor in the cultural identity of its speakers, this shared Lutheran lexicon helps bind us in community. We can hardly overestimate the importance of this for the church in a mobile society but we must not permit our language to define or unduly limit us in our conversations with other Christians. Lutheran and Episcopal identities are much more profound than our ecclesiastical dialects.
Imagine a Lutheran/Episcopal conversation as in the following little story. The terms underlined on their first appearance alert us to differences in vocabulary and usage:
Since the ELCA and the Episcopal Church have agreed to interim sharing of the Eucharist, St. Timothy’s Episcopal Parish invited their neighbors, Grace Lutheran Congregation to share worship and a social hour afterwards. Joint celebrants were Father James Yarrow of St. Timothy’s and Pastor Martha Johnson of Grace, assisted by the Reverend Mary Smith of St. Timothy’s and two deacons from Grace. Although the service followed the Book of Common Prayer, the Lutherans found it very familiar. Indeed, some were surprised at how closely the language matched that found in the Lutheran Book of Worship!
Over coffee after the service, the conversation turned to church affairs. Members of St. Timothy’s expressed satisfaction that their very active parish now had two priests. The newspapers that week had carried an interview with the newly elected bishop of the synod that included Grace Church, and several Episcopalians asked about the role of the bishop in the Lutheran Church. Members of both churches expressed interest in further conversation, including joint worship, possibly leading to shared ministry such as a Vacation Bible School.
The term celebrant would not startle Lutherans although the Lutheran Book of Worship refers to presiding and assisting ministers. The phrase Holy Eucharist is understood by most Lutherans but seldom used. The word Communion is preferred and is used by Lutherans in three closely-related ways: It refers to the sacrament of Christ’s Last Supper, to the experience of receiving the bread and wine, and to the liturgy of word and sacrament in the Lutheran Book of Worship. For Episcopalians, the word Communion usually refers to the experience of receiving the bread and wine during a celebration of the Eucharist. The latter is the name given to the sacrament and to the liturgy of word and sacrament in the Book of Common Prayer. An ecumenical conjunction of the roots of the two names says a great deal about the sacrament: The “community” is “giving thanks.” Episcopalians and Lutherans understand phrases like full communion and communion of the saints (as in the Apostles’ Creed) in the same way.
The Lutheran deacons who assisted at the altar were simply lay members of the congregation elected to a term on the church council, although the same term (or deaconess) can also refer to a lay person who has made a formal commitment to lifelong professional service in the church. Episcopalians would be surprised at this terminology because Episcopal deacons are ordained for a life of service that includes assisting a bishop or priest in public worship and ministry to the sick.
The terms used to designate the local community have virtually the same meaning in their respective settings. Episcopalians say parish, Lutherans prefer congregation, but each would understand the other. Higher in the ecclesiastical structure, an Episcopal parish belongs to a diocese and an ELCA congregation belongs to a synod. Both a diocese and a synod are overseen by a bishop, a conspicuous word in the lexicon that has different associations in the two traditions. An Episcopal bishop is a high-ranking clergyman or clergywoman who is consecrated for life to an oversight role that signifies and embodies the continuing apostolic witness of the church. This view of the office of bishop and its implications occupies a central place in the Lutheran/Episcopal discussion of full communion. Lutherans should be aware that the word episcopal refers to bishops and is significant for Episcopalians somewhat as the words confessional and evangelical are significant for Lutherans.
The Lutherans in the story may have been jarred at first by the rich (and ancient) vocabulary Episcopalians use to refer to their clergy: for example, Father Yarrow is a priest. Formally, a priest ranks below a bishop but above a deacon, and has authority to pronounce absolution and administer the sacraments, but not to ordain. American Lutherans understand this role, but many would not be comfortable with terms such as priest that they associate with the Church of Rome. Ecumenical conversation may help us dispel the shadows in our folk memory of the Reformation. Nor do American Lutherans use presbyter (synonymous with priest, but used more formally) or rector (a clergy person in charge of a parish) or vicar (a clergy person delegated to lead a mission). Lutherans load all these meanings onto the word pastor to designate an ordained person in either the person’s “shepherding” or “priestly” role and then expand the word’s usage by employing it as a title. Episcopalians might use the term if referring to ministry as in pastoral care. Since pastor is gender-free, it has some advantage as a title. (In the story, the pastor at Grace and one of the priests at St. Timothy’s, Reverend Smith, are women.)
As these examples suggest, language comparisons can stir thought about meaning and thereby stimulate conversation. As Lutherans and Episcopalians become bilingual they will find a common heritage just beyond the more apparent differences. The Lutherans in the story discovered a gift given years ago to the Lutherans who began to worship in English–the marvelous language of the Book of Common Prayer–a gift that presages the enrichment of both traditions as they continue today to search for unity.