Living Theology in the Metropolitan Chicago Synod
Evangelical Lutheran Church In America
Volume 2, Number 4
Ecumenism and Full Communion
Wayne R. Cowell
Following the narrow defeat of the Concordat of Agreement in the recent ELCA Churchwide Assembly, the Assembly then adopted two resolutions aimed at restarting the move toward full communion with the Episcopal Church.
The first declares the intention of the ELCA to preserve conversation and eucharistic sharing with the Episcopal Church, and to bring a revised proposal for full communion to the 1999 Churchwide Assembly. The second recognizes "our need as the ELCA to understand our own doctrine, creeds, and polity, and that of the Episcopal Church," and requests that the leadership create educational opportunities throughout the ELCA "designed to communicate the history, theology, and ecclesiology" of both churches.
After the overwhelming passage of these resolutions, Presiding Bishop H. George Anderson turned to the Episcopal representatives and asked for patience: "[You have heard] the urgent and heartfelt desire of our church to enter into full communion with your church. We ask for time to set ourselves in order and to find ways to join you in what you have already committed yourselves to and to which we aspire." (The Lutheran, Oct., 1997, p. 8.)
No doubt various motivations prompted “yes” votes on these resolutions. Obviously many who had rejected the Concordat voted to keep the matter of full communion with the Episcopal Church open, perhaps because they believed that the commissioned study would reveal a new way out of the impasse represented by the historic episcopate. Others may have read the resolutions as an admission that the Assembly was not well prepared to act on the Concordat. Whatever the individual reasons, the collective action raises important questions, in particular:
1. How serious will be the commitment to a study?
The commitment of the ELCA leadership to full communion with the Episcopal Church is not in doubt, but we do not yet have a measure of commitment to a study in the depth implied by the resolution. Taking the Assembly action at face value, if the ELCA moves intentionally toward better understanding of the history, theology, and ecclesiology of both churches (and hence of the church catholic), the consequences of an informed membership would reach far beyond reconsideration of full communion with the Episcopal Church. We can pose this question to the leadership, we can stimulate discussion, and we can reflect on the reception of the Concordat during 1996-97 in the hope that we can grow from that experience.
2. Assuming that the ELCA is serious, what would be the nature of such a study?
Here we can offer a serious suggestion. The Lutheran and Episcopal theologians who worked together in a dialogue that began 28 years ago produced a collection of papers and reports which have been edited and gathered into readily-available books. Some of the vocabulary is technical, but the main directions of the dialogue could be expressed in terms congenial to catechized laypersons. Indeed, there is a model: one of the reports of the third round of dialogue, Implications of the Gospel (William A. Norgren and William G. Rusch, eds., Augsburg Fortress, 1988), includes a study guide by Darlis J. Swan and Elizabeth Z. Turner. (This might need to be updated and expanded but it shows what could be done.) We will sketch the contours of a study based on the dialogue, but it is only an intellectual exercise unless the ELCA makes a serious commitment, and so we return to the first question.
The late debates on the Concordat impel us toward a pessimistic answer about the ELCA's capacity to examine great questions with great care. After attending the Assembly, Pastor Leonard Klein pictured a reconsidered Concordat as an accommodation, its meaning contaminated by a deep malaise within Lutheranism: "In two years some plan, very possibly a slightly improved version of the Concordat, will likely pass. Lutherans will find a way to move slowly into the historic episcopate, but long before they arrive at the fullness of that goal, unreconciled diversity and flat-out liberalism will have done their work, and any genuine Lutheran confessionalism, to say nothing of a truly catholic view of Lutheranism, will long since have faded." (Forum Letter, Oct., 1997) This predicted Lutheran future may strike many as too dark but it should be taken as a challenge, not dismissed as the grumbling of a cranky minority.
In referring to the debates we have used the plural intentionally; actually there were two debates. The distinction between them was the depth they employed in the use of sources, particularly the dialogue documents (including, but not limited to the Concordat itself), Scripture, normative texts of Lutherans and Anglicans, as well as social and historical data. The insights developed by the first, "deeper" debate were useful for evaluating the Concordat and the prospects inherent in full communion. The arguments, both pro and con, had context; they could be related to the "big picture" - the church's unity in Christ for the sake of the world.
On the whole this first debate was an exception to Klein's picture of decayed confessionalism. Sadly, its impact was severely limited. It was conducted by the theologically well-informed, mainly on the pages of journals like Dialog and Lutheran Forum. Aside from simplified summaries in The Lutheran and an occasional "teach-in" by theologians for lay leaders and parish pastors, there was little from this debate communicated to and made part of the discussion among the people in the pews and in the parish pulpits. To ask, "Why not?" is a fair question to pose to the leadership as they ponder how we may "set ourselves in order." If the answer is that the people are not ready for this kind of discussion then we see the size of the task of preparing to reconsider the Concordat.
The second, "shallower" debate was somewhat amorphous and anecdotal but one could get the drift of it from the pages of The Lutheran. Pro-Concordat arguments often cited John 17 (a good start) and told of how much we shared with the Episcopalians. They described particular Lutheran/Episcopal cooperative arrangements (many of which did not really depend on full communion), but their assurances that lifetime bishops were not contrary
"Shallowness" is a pejorative term for this debate but it is precisely to the point. The historic episcopate was the great impasse to full communion that was worked through and resolved by dialogue extending over nearly three decades, involving some of the best minds in both churches. One may disagree with the way out of the cul‑de‑sac but it deserves to be understood, which requires that it be considered with the depth characteristic of the first debate.
An example will show how easy it is to be misled and to mislead without careful attention to sources. (We do not claim that it shows any intention to mislead.) Some Concordat opponents asserted that Episcopalians regard the historic episcopate as a necessary element of the church, in addition to Scripture, the creeds, and the sacraments. The assertion is wrong but is subtly close to a related correct assertion. It is probably derived from a misunderstanding of the Episcopalians' insistence that the historic episcopate is essential to their identity as a communion and (together with Scripture, the creeds, and the sacraments) a requirement for full union with other communions. This is not the same thing as saying that the historic episcopate is part of the essence of the church. Careful reading of the dialogue documents, as we will propose below, makes the Episcopal position clear.
This kind of misunderstanding is more than semantic nicety. It traps the mind into believing that Lutherans would relinquish their confessional position that the church is the gathering of the faithful around rightly-proclaimed Word and rightly-celebrated sacraments if they enter into full communion with Episcopalians. It is easily confuted (and would be prevented in the first place) by referring to the dialogue documents, which leads us back to our second question: What might be the shape of a serious study to fulfill the mandate of the 1997 Assembly?
What we sketch here is intended to provoke discussion; it is far short of a course outline. Our suggested study would lay aside the Concordat until later and would begin with a catechetical review. Summary material could be drawn from Luther's catechisms and from more modern work such as Robert Jenson's A Large Catechism (American Lutheran Publicity Bureau, 1991).
Second, the study would work through Implications of the Gospel, alluded to above, or material of similar nature. This is a natural next step beyond catechism. It begins with Jesus' proclamation of the reign of God, injected into human history by the resurrection. Thereafter, the disciple community was able to reappropriate Jesus' life and death, and Israel's past, and to reenvision God's future--a future not yet consummated but already present as promise. Implications goes on to take up the great doctrines of classical Christianity: Christ and the Trinity. It deals with the church as a necessary implication of the gospel; and the manifestation of the visible unity of the church is presented as the fundamental vocation of the people of God. It examines the present cultural context in which the church offers the gospel as an alternative vision for the future of the world. Finally, Implications takes up mission in terms of the interdependence of ecumenism, evangelism, and ethics.
This is a tall order for a thin volume of 128 pages! It offers only a peek at great matters; but in a way that could be appropriated by adults in a parish setting. As mentioned above, Implications has a study guide and is a joint statement by Lutherans and Episcopalians. It leaves no doubt that Episcopalians and Lutherans share common teaching at the most basic level.
For the third phase of the study, we propose that materials be developed to recapitulate the modern Lutheran/Episcopal dialogue. Since the question of shared doctrine would already be settled in the second phase, this phase would deal with the remaining and most crucial issue, the historic episcopate. We will not attempt to point to specific references here but the dialogue documents provide a rich resource. This phase of study would examine the same historical issues that the dialogue examined: the development of the ordained ministry in the early church and the emergence of the threefold order of bishops, presbyters, and deacons as one of the institutions for preserving the apostolic witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ. It would discuss corrupting influences in the church that precipitated the crisis of the sixteenth century and would compare the English and German reformations that resulted in a reformed episcopate in England and the development of confessionalism in Germany.
This historical sweep could be handled in summary fashion but it is necessary background for understanding the way the dialogue arrived at common ground in identifying the historic episcopate as a sign of the present church's continuity with the church of the apostles while the substance of apostolicity lay in canon, creed and sacrament, as these are proclaimed and "used" in the church. This kind of thinking fit the Lutherans' confessional approval of a reformed episcopate and enabled the Episcopalians to accept the Lutheran faithfulness to a confessional consensus as a de facto apostolic succession.
Finally, in its fourth phase, our recommended study would return to the Concordat. By now, to name a few of the benefits of their study, the participants could read with greater appreciation that Episcopalians and Lutherans "recognize in each other the essentials of the one catholic and apostolic faith..." They should be able to see that neither the recovery of the historic episcopate by Lutherans nor the Episcopalians' recognition of Lutheran ordinations need trouble either side's conscience. These were not "negotiated" settlements in a process of "I'll do this if you give up that" but are results of common understanding. They should be able to consider knowledgeably the position of the Lutheran dialogists who wrote a dissenting report and the assenting answer (an exchange that was often misinterpreted in the shallow debate). They should realize that Lutherans have the freedom to have lifetime bishops who make a difference, an episcopate of women and men who are chief pastors, teachers, defenders of the faith. Best of all, they might just find that a revision of this document would be grounded in a confessional consensus that would enable Assembly delegates to say with St. James of Jerusalem, "It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us."
Can all of this be done in two years? Probably not. Would it give Episcopalians confidence in the conversation. Surely, it would. Would its effect spread far beyond Lutheran-Episcopal relations? It certainly would. Indeed, if a serious study along these lines were mounted, it should give some hope to those who yearn for a genuine Lutheran confessionalism and a truly catholic view of Lutheranism.
Wayne R. Cowell
Member, Lutheran/Episcopal Dialogue