Unseemly Fuss over Lutheran-Episcopal Accord Hurts the Gospel
by Jerome F. Winzig
Last year almost 70 percent of the delegates at the biennial Churchwide Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) approved an agreement with the Episcopal Church. The accord, "Called to Common Mission" (CCM), grew out of three decades of extended Lutheran-Episcopal dialogue that began in 1969.
The Lutheran-Episcopal Agreement of 1982 recognized that both churches were places where the gospel is preached and taught. The 1988 joint report, "Implications of the Gospel," addressed the life and ministry of both churches. In 1991, another joint report, "Toward Full Communion and Concordat of Agreement," proposed breaking the historic impasse between Lutherans and Episcopalians on ministry and communion. At the Churchwide Assembly in 1997, an earlier version of CCM fell just six votes short of the two-thirds majority needed for approval. Later, the agreement was reworked to address the concerns of those who opposed it before it was approved two years later.
In spite of the agreement's long gestation, careful consideration, and overwhelming approval, however, some vocal ELCA members are now insisting that the agreement be resisted, defied, and ignored. They are encouraging congregations to withhold financial contributions to the ELCA. They are asking supporters to "defy all attempts to implement [the agreement] in the life of congregations, pastors, regional leaders, and regional governance units." They have created an organization that has sponsored a series of meetings and runs a web site, and they organize media coverage by working through favorably-disposed reporters.
Why has this agreement caused such a ruckus among a few when it has provoked very little controversy or discussion in most congregations? It's hard to find an answer. At its heart, the agreement carefully unites Lutherans and Episcopalians in a common understanding of the role of bishops in the life of the church. A central part of this common understanding is a recognition of that the ancient Christian practice of the laying on of hands to set a person apart for ministry is a way of tying the individual who is being set aside to the church as a whole.
Two key paragraphs in the agreement, numbered 10 and 11, express the role of bishops and the laying on of hands in these words:
"10. The New Testament describes a laying-on-of-hands to set persons apart for a variety of ministries. In the history of the church, many and various terms have been used to describe the rite by which a person becomes a bishop. In the English language these terms include: confecting, consecrating, constituting, installing, making, ordaining, ordering. Both our traditions have used the term "consecration of bishops' for this same rite at some times. Today the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America uses the term 'installation' while The Episcopal Church uses the word 'ordination' for the rite by which a person becomes a bishop. What is involved in each case is the setting apart within the one ministry of Word and Sacrament of a person elected and called for the exercise of oversight (episkope) wider than the local congregation in the service of the gospel."
"11. 'Historic succession' refers to a tradition which goes back to the ancient church, in which bishops already in the succession install newly elected bishops with prayer and the laying-on-of-hands. At present The Episcopal Church has bishops in this historic succession, as do all the churches of the Anglican Communion, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America at present does not, although some member churches of the Lutheran World Federation do. The Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral of 1886/1888, the ecumenical policy of The Episcopal Church, refers to this tradition as 'the historic episcopate.' In the Lutheran Confessions, Article 14 of the Apology refers to this episcopal pattern by the phrase, 'the ecclesiastical and canonical polity' which it is 'our deep desire to maintain'."
Out of these historical roots, the agreement commits the ELCA and the Episcopal Church to "full communion (pulpit and altar fellowship)". In plain English, it means that the two churches can share pastors and communion. That's pretty good news, and not very controversial.
In fact, the agreement points out the ELCA is already in full communion with the churches in the Lutheran World Federation as well as the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Reformed Church in America, and the United Church of Christ. The Episcopal Church, in turn, is already in full communion with all the Provinces in the Anglican Communion as well as the Old Catholic Churches in Europe, the United Churches of the Indian subcontinent, the Mar Thoma Church, and the Philippine Independent Church. At the same time, the agreement takes pains to say this does not imply any automatic communion between the ELCA and the churches recognized by the Episcopal Church, or vice versa.
This is cautious stuff indeed, especially for someone who became Lutheran after growing up Roman Catholic and attending a Catholic seminary. I first discovered Martin Luther's attempts to reform the Catholic Church and his wonderful affirmations of "salvation by faith alone" in a theology class taught by a Catholic priest at St. Thomas University.
The unique Lutheran perspective on the gospel is passionately important to me. When I teach my Sunday School students about Luther's notion that we are simultaneously saints and sinners, I am fond of using his original Latin, "simul justus et peccatur," because I believe that this ancient concept is essential in making the gospel of Jesus Christ real in our world today.
But I did not grow up Lutheran. I have only a passing interest in the enduring loyalties of some Lutherans to previous Lutheran church bodies and past Lutheran disputes. I am part of a Lutheran-Catholic marriage. We were married over a quarter of a century ago in a joint Lutheran-Catholic worship service that included communion, and because of it my only aunt and uncle, one Lutheran and one originally Catholic, received communion with the rest of my family for the first time. Many of the members of our Lutheran church, which is centered on Lutheran doctrine, come from many different church backgrounds and have similar stories.
Consequently, I have little patience with the pastor who dislikes Episcopalians so much he publicly states he'd rather have AIDS than be Episcopalian. I cannot fathom another pastor who says, ominously, "well, you know, the 'Romans' are next." What silly ignorance! Doesn't he even know that most Catholics would think he was talking about citizens of the capital city of Italy?
Our cities, towns, and countryside are filled with people who are unchurched. Many people's lives are filled with a spiritual vacuum and lack value. During church on Sunday morning, it is not uncommon to see Sunday newspapers still lying on the front steps of half the homes in our neighborhood. We are not a Christian nation, and in many ways our secular, hedonistic culture is hostile to Christianity.
So, as Christians we have an enormous, ongoing challenge to preach the gospel rather than engaging in a blood feud about the Lutheran-Episcopal accord. Wasting time and energy tilting against imaginary windmills is not preaching the gospel. But it's surprising how often the "papacy" is mentioned in articles on the web site of those who oppose the Lutheran-Episcopal agreement. Lying to one's congregation is not preaching the gospel. But one pastor led his congregation to withdraw from the ELCA because the agreement would no longer let him do confirmations, even though the agreement flatly states that "pastors of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America will continue to preside at confirmations."
Lastly, excessive polemics against one's Christian brothers and sisters is not preaching the gospel. But the well-chosen remarks of the gentle and wonderful former presiding bishop of the ELCA, Herbert W. Chilstrom, are published on the Internet under the derogatory title, "The Big Chill gets nasty." And a seminary professor says that listening to the ELCA's current presiding bishop, H. George Anderson, is "rather like having the one who killed our mother wanting to be our grief counselor, and now wanting us to comfort him for having betrayed us."
Let's come back down to earth, for that is where we are called to preach the gospel, and reserve such harsh words for the very real presence of Satan and evil in our world.