Far be it from us to raise barriers to the unity of churches for our greater common witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ. After all, it is our Lord’s prayer “that they may be one” precisely for the sake of witness to the truth of the gospel.
Just so, it is necessary that we remember that our call is to witness to the gospel and in this to discover the unity that exists among fellow witnesses.
It was precisely disagreement over the implications of the gospel of the Incarnation, that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” as that is instantiated in the sacramental presence of Christ, that caused Luther to say to Zwingli, “You have a different spirit.”
Zwingli is not the whole of the Reformed tradition; there were more mediating witnesses in the persons of Bucer and Calvin. Nevertheless, Lutherans have understood the confession of the real presence of the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist to be a christological issue: it is a confession that God meets us in Christ “deep in the flesh.” In other words, in the historic controversies between the Lutherans and the Reformed, especially over the Eucharist, the gospel itself was seen to be at stake.
Has this and other historic controversies been transcended through dialogue in the twentieth century? Several rounds of Lutheran-Reformed Dialogue have said so. If so, it would be very important to “receive” the results of the dialogues in our churches, to test them and to respond to them.
This is exactly what happened in the Lutheran-Episcopal Dialogues, where there were no historic church dividing issues. Lutheran Churches in America and The Episcopal Church entered a period of “interim eucharistic hospitality” during which we invited each other to the other’s altars and experienced for ourselves the unity in faith and practice which we share. During this time further dialogue took place as a result of which it is being proposed that our Churches enter into full altar and pulpit fellowship in 1997.
Also in 1997 we are asked to consider this very same kind of relationship with the Reformed Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and the United Church of Christ. This step was proposed in A Common Calling (1993) with reference to the Leuenberg Agreement among Lutheran and Reformed Churches in Germany (1973), which nearly 80 Reformation Churches in Europe have signed. That historic agreement developed among Christians who had shared a common witness to the gospel against Nazism in the Confessing Church movement. It must also be candidly admitted that there was some concern for a united Protestant confession in Germany in the face of a Roman Catholic Church renewed by the Second Vatican Council.
But even if A Common Calling has resolved historic differences, what happened to the “reception process?” What about congregation-oriented study materials to be jointly shared with neighboring Lutheran and Reformed/Presbyterian/UCC. parishes? What about a process of responding to A Common Calling by congregations, synods, and seminaries? What about opportunities to discover for ourselves a unity in faith and practice through an “interim eucharistic sharing?”
Would we discover such a unity at one another’s altars? Minimally, we would have to transcend significantly different liturgical orders and worship styles in local congregations in order to do so. Are these differences irrelevant, or is it the case, as the church fathers used to say, “that the law of prayer ought to establish the law of belief?”
There are other questions as well. Why are relationships to three distinct churches bundled together to be acted on as one, as though there were no differences between these three churches in the Reformed tradition? If each of these church bodies is unique, should we not be considering our relationship to each one separately? One answer given to this question is that our dialogue was with three church bodies, and agreement with one means agreement with all. But, of course, part of the reception process is to evaluate also the ecclesiastical self-image presented by the participants in the dialogue. Do we agree that a Lutheran view of things has been fairly and adequately presented by our representatives? Members of the three Reformed churches must also ask this of their representatives? Do members of the Reformed Church in America and the United Church of Christ have the same ecclesiastical self-image?
Another answer is that the ELCA needs to balance proposed fellowship with The Episcopal Church with proposed fellowship with the Reformed Churches, so as to balance the so-called “catholic” and “protestant” wings of our own church body. This is the political strategy of providing something for everyone.
If indeed this political answer ” is the reason for the proposal of fellowship with the Reformed churches, then more than a common witness to the gospel could be lost in 1997. The integrity of commitment to the truth of the gospel in the ELCA could be questioned. Indeed, we would be acting in bad faith with all dialogue partners. We would have reduced their gospel witness to pawns in our internal political machinations.
We prefer to think that the political answer is not the real one, and that the rush to fellowship in 1997 represents a zeal to advance the unity of witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ. But we are concerned that a real breakthrough to unity could be jeopardized precisely because the reception process has been short-changed. The fact is that covenants between Lutheran synods and Reformed judicatories are not nearly as widespread as covenants between Lutheran synods and Roman Catholic and Episcopal dioceses.
We believe that an interim step is necessary similar to the one the ELCA and its predecessor bodies have enjoyed with The Episcopal Church since 1982. Give us a chance to test the agreements that have been reached in the Lutheran-Reformed Dialogues by getting to know our Reformed brothers and sisters in the ways in which we will have to know them if we are to be in full altar and pulpit fellowship with them. The proposal of full fellowship with The Episcopal Church can still be considered on its own merits because of a history of reception and agreement in the gospel without the fear that we cannot enter into one relationship without entering into the other.