The invitation of Let’s Talk in its Epiphany, 1998 issue motivates me to share some thoughts on what happened and what did not happen at the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Churchwide Assembly in Philadelphia last August.
The response to the vote on the Lutheran-Episcopal Concordat of Agreement by some of the writers in Let’s Talk borders on panic and despair. Words and phrases such as used by Pastor Danielson include “very disappointed,” “embarrassed,” “gravely concerned,” “weeping in heaven,” “a wrong headed step backward,” a Church “behaving so foolishly,” “a church moving by whim and wave rather than by the Spirit.”
The ELCA in convention prays for the presence and the guidance of the Holy Spirit in all its deliberations and decisions. Does one say that the Spirit was present and active only if the decisions made agree with one’s own wishes or hopes for the church? Does a desire for apostolic succession include a “trickle-down theory” of how the Holy Spirit leads and guides and blesses God’s people? In Peter’s great Pentecost sermon he declared to the listening crowd, “Repent, be baptized and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children and to all that are far off, every one whom the Lord our God calls to him.” (Acts 2:38,39) If this be true, and I believe it is, then is it right to marginalize or demonize those who did not vote for the Concordat of Agreement?
The “antihierarchical pietism of the Upper Midwest denominational Lutherans that has dogged consensus on issues of ecclesiology and ministry” is deplored by Frank Senn. As a product of that kind of Lutheranism I suggest that the results have not been all bad for the church. There are many vibrant colleges sending forth committed Christian lay people with a sense of vocation in our world; there are great and growing congregations that bear witness to Jesus Christ in Word and Sacrament and reach out to their communities with the Gospel. There is exciting theological training which has equipped thousands of pastors committed to fulfilling the Great Commission to go and make disciples of all nations. During my ten years as a missionary teacher and evangelist in Taiwan, most of my American co-workers came from the Upper Midwest. I think that can also be said of many of the mission areas served by American Lutherans around the world.
I think we need to ask ourselves as members of the ELCA, what is the pressing task we have as the people of God in this time and place? Is it that by all means possible and with all our energy and resources, to press on to the goal of eventual reunion with Rome, or is it to be faithful to the Gospel with its great vision of winning the world to Jesus Christ? From my reading of history I do not see the historic episcopate with its apostolic succession as being necessary for the extension of God’s Kingdom through Word and Sacrament ministry.
Friends of mine who have visited parishes in England and Sweden (as I have in North Germany) find pastors who are in the apostolic succession (and supported by the church tax) ministering in fine liturgical garb before beautiful altars to nearly empty pews. Is the correct celebration of the Eucharist in nearly empty churches what God sees as the most acceptable way to be the Church in our world? Perhaps as Lutheran we should rediscover that the means of grace include both Word (spoken, taught, read) and Sacrament (Baptism and Eucharist). Perhaps the need for the ELCA at this time and place is to rediscover the power and grace of the preached Word of God. Most of us as pastors know how to administer Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. For too long we have depended on church growth through the baptism of infants. Do we have the ability to preach the Word to the adult world around us in such a way that it touches and changes the hearts and minds of those who hear? How exciting it would be if in our conferences, our synod and national assemblies, the topic and business of the day would be the preaching of the Gospel in faithfulness to the Great Commission given by Jesus to his apostles. In all of Jesus’ instructions to his disciples I fail to see any charge for them to establish an historic episcopacy or apostolic succession.
If in the guidance of God’s Spirit with His Church we should reach the point of full agreement first with the Episcopal Church and later with the Roman Catholic Church, I for one will rejoice. But it must be the Spirit’s work and not just because of the superior theologizing of a few who desire this unity at all costs.
And there will be costs. Having lived under many bishops and president of the Lutheran church in my 45 years of ministry, I can say some were very good servants of the Gospel. If they served a life-time I would believe that their congregations would be blessed. But I have also known a few for whom the “Peter Principle” was applicable. Without a “shepherd’s heart,” they were indeed the expression of “the theology-izing of power” as Gracia Gindal has warned. What protection would our congregations or pastors have if such a bishop’s leadership was extended for a life-time?
If we reach some sort of concordat with our Episcopal brothers and sisters I would hope that a limitation of the terms of the bishops would be included in the agreement. Only if we sanitize the church and secular history can we say that all bishops who shared in apostolic succession brought blessings to the people of God or glory to the name of God.
I have been very encouraged by the reforms instituted by Vatican II in the Roman Catholic Church. They have led to a renewed emphasis on the preaching of the Word of God, on the mission of the church in faithfulness to the Gospel, on the call for servanthood by laity, priests and hierarchy. In the homily recently delivered by Pope John Paul II to the newly elected cardinals of the church he again and again reminded them of the need for faithfulness to the Gospel and renewed dedication to the mission of sharing that Gospel with our world. With a renewed and rededicated Roman Catholic Church, once more the Church will have a message that will “turn the world upside down.” hopefully with that same dedication to the Gospel, to mission and to servanthood, our beloved Lutheran church will share in that same challenge under the blessing of God, Father, Son and Spirit.