Now and not yet: the ELCA assembly – Evangelical Lutheran Church

Richard E. Koenig

Lutherans came to Philadelphia to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the three-church merger that created the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. But they also had on their agenda two proposals for an even larger demonstration of Christian unity: the widely publicized and hotly debated ecumenical statements calling for “full communion” between the ELCA and three churches of the Reformed tradition–the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Reformed Church in America and the United Church of Christ–and between the ELCA and the Episcopal Church. In addition, the assembly had before it the draft of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification developed by the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church.

Establishing formal ties for what Lutherans once called “pulpit and altar fellowship” has never come easily for Lutherans. As a confessional church–that is, one that finds its identity in historic statements of doctrine from the 16th-century Reformation and its aftermath–Lutheran bodies traditionally have pursued fellowship with other churches largely on the basis of a doctrinal consensus measured by the confessions. Given the different paths the churches have followed since the Reformation, fellowship via doctrinal agreement has proved to be highly elusive, even among Lutherans (and after this assembly the current Lutheran divisions will probably be permanent). But in 1991 the ELCA adopted a new stance regarding the confessions, viewing them as bridges, not barriers, in interchurch relations. This allowed for greater flexibility in identifying doctrinal agreement, and opened the way for fresh approaches to church fellowship.

Historically the chief divide between the Lutheran and Reformed traditions involved their different teachings on Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper, Christology and (at certain periods) predestination. Lutherans and Anglicans have had no formal doctrinal disagreements, but have differed in the ordering of ministry.

After the ecumenical proposals were introduced for plenary discussion by chairpersons of the coordinating committees and representatives of the Reformed and Episcopal churches, voting members had opportunity to hear further testimony and to exchange opinions at a series of open hearings. Prior to the hearings, Presiding Bishop H. George Anderson outlined his support of the proposals and issued a stirring call for their acceptance. At other sessions, prominent supporters of the proposals faced off with prominent opponents. The discussion of the Formula of Agreement (with the three Reformed bodies) juxtaposed two former colleagues on the faculty of the Lutheran Seminary at Philadelphia–Timothy Lull, now president of Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in Berkeley, who spoke for the proposal, and William Lazareth, onetime executive director of the World Council of Churches’ Commission on Faith and Order, who spoke against. Speaking for the Concordat of Agreement (with the Episcopal Church) was Walter Bouman of Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus, Ohio; speaking against was Michael Rogness of Luther Theological Seminary in St. Paul. In all, the discussions on the full-communion proposals stretched over four days and six sessions. No one could say that he or she had not been heard.

According to a rule change adopted at the beginning of the assembly, after debate on the two measures had ended, votes on both proposals were taken sequentially. The vote on the formula came first and the results were announced. Immediately, with no further discussion or debate, the vote on the concordat took place. Results appeared on huge screens to the left and right of the podium, allowing the assembly to see its decision in the form of a color bar graph indicating the percentage voting for and against each proposal. As the screen lit up, one could feel the assembly holding its collective breath.

The Formula of Agreement was approved with 81.3 percent of the vote–838 to 193. Two minutes later the screens showed the Concordat of Agreement going down to defeat after receiving 684 votes in favor (66.1 percent), 351 (33.9) percent opposed–six votes (and .6 percent) short of the required two-thirds majority.

There was no applause or jubilation. Many wept. The rejection of the concordat with the Episcopalians almost extinguished whatever joy and enthusiasms had begun to be felt with the adoption of the formula. Thirty years of conversations with Episcopalians had ended in failure, with uncertain consequences for the future. “Lutherans Heal Old Divisions While Opening New Ones,” the headlines read. What cut most deeply was the graphic’s exposure of the division in the ELCA itself. After a desultory singing of “The Church’s One Foundation,” the assembly went into recess for 15 minutes.

In the weeks preceding the assembly there were indications that approval of the concordat was in doubt. This in itself was surprising, since earlier polls had shown congregations and pastors decidedly in favor of full communion with the Episcopal Church while hesitant, if not directly opposed, to full communion with the Reformed. As the vote drew closer, however, a strange coalition took shape against the concordat. It included a number of prominent theologians and former church leaders of the ELCA’s predecessor bodies (but not, it should be noted, former Lutheran Church in America Bishop James Crumley or former ELCA Bishop Herbert Chilstrom).

Joining this group was a majority of the faculty of Luther Theological Seminary in St. Paul, with its strong Norwegian heritage linking it to an Upper Midwest constituency of clergy and laity who also stood against the proposal. Joining this group, oddly enough, was a small number identified as evangelical catholics. Each of these parties harbored its own reasons for opposing the concordat, but all were united in objecting to the historic episcopate.

The historic episcopate is the form of church government centering on bishops who hold office after having been ordained with the laying on of hands by bishops who have been likewise ordained in a succession reaching back to the early centuries of the church. Roughly two-thirds of the world’s Christians belong to churches with an episcopal polity. The Lutheran-Episcopal concordat represented a novel approach: it would allow a nonepiscopal church body to achieve full communion with a church holding to an episcopal order without its clergy being required to submit to reordination. It offered a way for churches that do not see themselves as confessional and churches that do to come together. Adoption of the concordat would also complete the ECLA’s bold attempt to reach both segments of Christendom, episcopal and nonepiscopal, simultaneously.

At the conclusion of the third series of Lutheran-Episcopal dialogues in 1991, representatives of both churches proceeded to draw up the Concordat of Agreement. But the vote by the ELCA contingent on the final draft of the concordat was split–five were in favor, three opposed. This should have been a warning sign. In their minority report the three opponents wrote: “We believe that to introduce the historic episcopate into the ELCA under the terms of the `Concordat’ could needlessly jeopardize a treasured friendship [between the ELCA and the Episcopal Church] as well as endanger the collaboration in the gospel and table fellowship we now enjoy. We believe that it could also provoke controversy and division among the congregations and ministers of the ELCA.”

In the end, what the minority feared was what happened. Unfortunately, it turned out that the fears of the majority were also realized. The five ELCA members who endorsed the concordat in 1991 had stated: “We pray that the controversy and division which our colleagues fear not be incited by those who are determined in advance to resist full communion between our churches.”

Ecumenical agreements such as these require unanimous or near-unanimous approval to become effective or have any meaning. Looking back, even the two-thirds majority that the ELCA set for approval of the proposals, while sufficient for satisfying constitutional requirements, would have been insufficient to bring into being what was being proposed.

Understaffed and underbudgeted, and experiencing a change in its top leadership in the middle of the process, the ELCA’s Department of Ecumenical Affairs did its part commendably. The response throughout the ELCA, however, was at best spotty. Many bishops and pastors apparently had other priorities than acquainting congregations with documents whose local relevance was not immediately apparent. This made fit easy for opponents of the proposals in the months preceding the assembly to circulate materials that oversimplified the issues and claimed that Lutherans would surrender important parts of their heritage (including the priesthood of all believers) if the historic episcopate were accepted. Their efforts were successful in ensuring a polarized delegation for the assembly.

There was still the possibility that some delegates could be persuaded by testimony from representatives of the partner churches. Whereas the performance of the Reformed representatives, led by John Thomas, chief ecumenical officer of the United Church of Christ, was decisive in this respect, those speaking for the Episcopal Church were less effective. They never found the language or the themes to connect with delegates, especially on the topic of the historic episcopate.

Following the vote the assembly wisely turned down a motion to reconsider its action. Delegates were then presented with two resolutions drawn up by an ad hoc group under the leadership of Bishop Ralph Kempski of the Indiana-Kentucky synod. Expressing “sadness” for the defeat of a measure that a large majority favored, the resolution called for a churchwide program to study the “history, theology, and ecclesiology” of both the Lutheran and Episcopal churches with a view to “ratification of an agreement for full communion with the Episcopal Church at the 1999 Churchwide Assembly of the ELCA.” The second resolution was directed to the Episcopal Church and declared that the ELCA was committed to finding a way to full communion while expressing a fervent desire to continue in “joint ministry efforts in worship, education, and mission” on the basis for the 1982 agreement for Interim Sharing of the Eucharist.

To the joy and delight of the assembly, both resolutions were overwhelmingly adopted. The vote evoked a heartfelt singing of “Shall We Gather at the River.” Many had tears in their eyes once again. This is a church that wants above all else to stay together, and the resolutions, more sincere than clear and very much after the fact, gave it a chance to express its unity. Gustav Niebuhr pointed out in the New York Times that “a declaration of intention is no guarantee of future action.” Nevertheless, as one member put it, the commitment statement “was a far more hopeful way to end than leaving the matter where it was on Monday evening.”

Commenting on the ELCA’s action at Philadelphia, Frank T. Griswold, the newly elected presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, was quoted as saying that “maybe the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has to grow in cohesion a little more” before new initiatives are tried. That maybe true, though a bit one-sided. Failure to adopt the concordat does not entirely rest with the ELCA. Both churches need to look carefully at the process–internal and external–that was followed. Both might learn a great deal. Episcopalians might find a better way for stating the case for a nonepiscopal church to accept the historic episcopate.

While the majority was prepared to accept the historic episcopate for the sake of unity, for many Lutherans the historic episcopate still looks and sounds like nothing more than an artifact, an antique bauble whose relation to the church and the gospel of justification is indistinct. Lutherans need to articulate an understanding of the sweep and scope of justification by faith that demonstrates why they consider it the doctrine by which the church stands or falls, and at the same time they need to learn to accept the freedom it bestows in the question of church orders. Both churches have to appreciate how their different cultures and histories lead them to speak as they do and learn to listen to one another better. The conversation should end with a proposal that speaks a different language from the legalistic-sounding concordat.

The upbeat mood created by the two resolutions calling for another try at establishing full communion with Episcopalians received further impetus from a near-unanimous endorsement of a joint declaration with Roman Catholics on the doctrine of justification. The ELCA had the document before it as one of the 122 member churches of the Lutheran World Federation to whom it has been submitted for approval.

In spite of the time and energy required to deal with the ecumenical proposals, some excellent work got done on matters internal to the life of the ELCA. Addie Butler, an African-American woman, was selected as vice-president. New leadership was chosen for various boards and commissions, missions were strengthened, support for theological education received a much needed boost, and a new, carefully crafted document offering guidelines for the church’s worship and sacramental life was adopted by a strong majority. The assembly also gave a ringing endorsement to Bishop Anderson’s seven “Initiatives for a New Century.”

Disappointed as they were in not having been able to reach a consensus on full communion with the Episcopalians, delegates left Philadelphia with hope for further advances in ecumenical relations and in their own mission. They also discovered they have an inspiring resource in their presiding bishop. Anderson’s performance as chair of this complex assembly was flawless. Despite the strong stand he took in favor of the ecumenical proposals at the outset, his conduct of the sessions was scrupulously fair and impartial. His bishop’s report at the beginning of the agenda drew a standing ovation for its vision and for its breadth. Above all, his grace, wit and undaunted faith kept this church together under stress and gave it hope for the future.

Richard E. Koenig is an ELCA pastor in Millbury, Massachusetts.

COPYRIGHT 1997 The Christian Century Foundation

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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