Every Thursday morning I get out my Book of Common Prayer and prepare to preside at mass at St. Ambrose Episcopal Church in Chicago Heights. This would not be unusual except that I am Pastor of Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Chicago Heights. I can do this because of “Called to Common Mission,” the historic agreement between the Episcopal Church USA and the ELCA.
St. Ambrose is a very small congregation. There is a shortage of available clergy in the Episcopal Church and St. Ambrose was having difficulty finding someone to preside at their Thursday morning healing mass after their rector took a call to another church. They have had this healing service for quite a while and didn’t want to give it up. There are only a handful of people who attend but it was important to them. I was available so the senior warden (comparable to a congregation president) got permission from the Episcopal bishop and I got permission from Bishop Olsen.
“Called to Common Mission” made it possible for a small Episcopal congregation to take advantage of the presence of a nearby Lutheran pastor who had the time to preside at their mass. The liturgy is nearly identical as is the theology. Following the mass I lead the group in a study of the lessons for the next Sunday. Usually they are the same ones I will be using at Prince of Peace. One member of St. Ambrose started attending, I found out later, because he wanted to see how I interpreted the Scriptures. He has been assuring everyone that I understand the Scriptures pretty well. Lest I sound too proud I should also say I was put in my place very early on. I have attended Episcopal masses before and, in fact, I co-presided with the former rector of St. Ambrose at their Christmass Eve midnight mass the two previous years and she co-presided with me at Prince of Peace on Christmass Day. I studied and prepared how to do the mass as I remembered it in the Episcopal style. Following the first mass I asked if anyone had any recommendations about how I should do things. One of the women, a life-long Episcopalian and a remarkable Christian, said that she appreciated what I had done and that it was good to have someone who presided in the Lutheran style for a change. So much for trying to be an Episcopalian!
There are some Lutherans who are very unhappy with “Called to Common Mission.” They see the agreement as adding something to what we Lutherans regard as necessary for Christian unity. As I meet with the people at St. Ambrose week after week I see something else. Some of them grew up in the Episcopal Church. Some of them came to the Episcopal Church because they appreciated what that Church offered, particularly in worship. They have been taught and have accepted the teaching that, for the good of the church, presbyters (what they call priests and what we call pastors) should be ordained by bishops who themselves have been ordained by other bishops. They see it as a way of helping to preserve the unity of their church. It is not something they require for salvation. In everything I have read regarding the Anglican tradition I have never read that apostolic succession is necessary for salvation. But the good people at St. Ambrose Episcopal Church belong to a church that has required this for a very long time. And yet, they have accepted my ministry among them. Neither they, nor their bishop, have required that I receive the laying on of hands from their bishop. They accept me as a valid priest serving at their altar bringing the gifts of Word and Sacrament to them. This was not possible last year at this time. It is possible now.
Our Metropolitan Chicago Synod is pursuing other possible ways for joint ministry to be done between Lutherans and Episcopalians. There is discussion under way about prison ministry. There is even discussion about the possibility of starting new missions together rather than in competition with each other.
I understand the difficulty some people in both churches have with “Called to Common Mission.” I am sorry that some of that disagreement on our side has been so hostile. When I proclaim the Gospel at St. Ambrose and feed the people there with the body and blood of Christ what I see is an opportunity. Sure they might have eventually found somebody else to preside at the mass. More likely they would have simply canceled it. But I am just a few blocks away. I had no commitments on Thursday mornings. My congregation was happy to let me do it. Their congregation was happy that I was able to do it. To me this is an example of the Holy Spirit working things out for the good of the people of the Church of Jesus Christ.
In the book of Acts we read the story about a trial of Peter and other Christians before the Temple council. A Pharisee and a member of the council named Gamaliel was quoted making a prophetic and wise statement that we should always remember when the Church is doing something new. He said, “Fellow Israelites, consider carefully what you propose to do to these men…if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them – in that case you may even be found fighting against God!” (Acts 5:35, 38-39)