Author Topic: Lutheran Disunity: the old, old story (July 2014)  (Read 5166 times)

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Lutheran Disunity: the old, old story (July 2014)
« on: July 17, 2014, 08:59:29 PM »
Lutheran disunity: the old, old story
Reprinted from Forum Letter, July 2014
Copyright 2014 American Lutheran Publicity Bureau. All rights reserved.

     The Lutheran World Federation announced in May that it was declining to accept the application for membership of the North American Lutheran Church. This decision came as a shock to some, an expected outcome to others, a relief to still others, but it is certainly a significant ecumenical twist for anyone concerned about the divisions among Lutherans in North America and the world. What’s the back story about this seeming rejection?
   When the North American Lutheran Church was founded in 2010, one of the first issues it faced was the possibility of membership in the LWF. The Federation’s membership does not include all the Lutheran churches of the world, but it represents most of them—some 95% of the world’s Lutherans. The NALC intended from the start to be a church open to genuine ecumenical conversation; its constitution proclaims that the church will “participate in Lutheran, ecumenical, and inter-religious relationships as part of its ministry and mission.”

Lack of enthusiasm
   Not everybody in the NALC was enthusiastic about the LWF. One could have predicted this in a body that is trying to bring together an array of Lutheran “flavors,” from evangelical catholics to pietistic congregationalists. In the view of some on this spectrum, the LWF is little more than an international front for the apostate (or nearly so) Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, and Church of Sweden.
   But others take seriously the ecumenical commitments of the Lutheran confessions, and have seen the LWF not only as an important marker of legitimization of the NALC, but a vital linkage with other churches, notably in the global South, who share the NALC’s unhappiness over the direction of the ELCA and other large Lutheran churches in the West. This latter concern was stated overtly in the resolution which initiated the NALC’s application: “Our Lutheran brothers and sisters in Africa, especially in Ethiopia and Tanzania, desire the full membership of the NALC in the Lutheran World Federation to be an orthodox and confessional North American partner within LWF.”
   That last phrase carries a lot of weight. In the NALC’s view, the two North American Lutheran churches that are full members of LWF—ELCA and ELCIC—are not orthodox and confessional; other North American churches (notably the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod) which are orthodox and confessional have never joined the LWF.
 
Narrowest of margins
   When it came before the NALC Convocation in 2012, the resolution to apply for LWF membership passed only quite narrowly—just a few votes more than the required 2/3. It was contentious enough that Bishop John Bradosky told the convocation “there is little joy when something this significant in our life together passes by the narrowest of margins.” It did pass, however, and so, under the NALC rules, went to the congregations for ratification. The vote of congregations to ratify this action was 167 to 61—a comfortable endorsement, but only marginally better (about 73%) than the narrow margin at the convocation.    
   And then, after all that contention and all that work, the application was denied. Apparently the application went through the usual process, culminating with a visit by LWF officials to the NALC offices in Ohio. But in May, General Secretary Martin Junge notified the NALC that “the LWF communion office will not, for now, pursue further discussions with NALC regarding its application for membership in the LWF. This means that the NALC membership application remains pending.” So not an outright rejection, but a “not now.”
 
Pathetic
   As of this writing, the NALC has not formally responded, at least publically, to the action, though Bp. Bradosky has promised that a response will be “forthcoming.” Plenty of other people have responded, however. First out of the box was LCMS President Matthew Harrison—no friend, obviously, of the LWF, but his response on his blog was uncharacteristically and inappropriately harsh:
   “This is pathetic,” Harrison wrote. “The LWF leadership is happy to have The Church of Sweden, The ELCA, and various German churches . . . which all have affirmed same sex marriage or same sex attraction/relationship in direct contradiction to the Holy Scriptures. But when a courageous group of recusants and confessors formerly of the ELCA, tired of the ridicule and abuse heaped upon them for decades for desiring to be faithful to scripture, act according to their biblically informed consciences, they are ostracized. Truly pathetic. Yes, we in the LCMS have significant differences with our friends in the NALC (most notably the issue of the ordination of women, and issues of church fellowship), and no, the LCMS should not seek membership in the LWF, but these people deserve our respect and prayers. God grant repentance to all of us Lutherans on the eve of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.”
 
None of his business
   Nobody should quarrel with the last sentence, but the rest is good evidence that church presidents and bishops ought to avoid personal blogging. In the first place, the relationship between the NALC and the LWF is none of his business; it is quite unseemly for him to air his personal opinions about this. If he felt the need to comment, he would have been well advised to avoid a word like “pathetic” (especially to avoid using it twice in the same blog entry).
   He also really should have avoided using this occasion to thump the ELCA (and the other churches) yet again over sexuality. It is no secret that he thinks they are apostate; it is more or less true that teachings and policies about sexuality were one factor—hardly the only one—in the decision of some to withdraw from the ELCA and form the NALC. That has little or nothing to do, however, with the LWF decision.
   Perhaps President Harrison simply couldn’t pass up an opportunity to bash the ELCA and the LWF. Perhaps he was making a calculated strategic approach to the NALC, a sort of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” kind of olive branch. Or perhaps he was just having a bad day. In any case, he really shouldn’t have said anything at all; he was hardly modeling Christian charity.
 
Conspiracy theories
   There were others who were convinced that it was the ELCA or the ELCIC or both who put the kibosh on the NALC application. In this theory, neither body could tolerate the idea of what the officials of these churches still seem to regard as a “schismatic body” sharing their position as “the North American Lutherans” in the LWF. This is a conspiracy theory that can go in many directions; there were whispers, for instance, that since the LWF is primarily dependent on the ELCA and ELCIC for its financial support (as are, so the theory goes on, many of the global South churches in the LWF), all it took was a shake of the head from those two bodies and the LWF was quick to turn thumbs down.
   All of which is almost certainly a bunch of malarkey. Sources at Higgins Road told Forum Letter that the ELCA (and the ELCIC) stayed far away from the LWF discussion of NALC. That has the ring of truth to me; it would be an appropriate stance to take, and I do not believe that these churches, for all their faults, are quite the bullies their opponents make them out to be—at least in their relationships within the LWF.
 
The real ELCA bullying
   In other contexts, one must say, there sometimes exists what appears to be bullying behavior on the part of the ELCA. Exhibit A is the adamant insistence on the part of many synod bishops that ELCA pastors must have absolutely nothing to do with the NALC—must not, for example, do pulpit supply or assist in any other way in an NALC congregation. In this it becomes apparent that the ELCA’s self-image as the most “ecumenical” of American Lutherans really has a lot of provisions for exceptions which can be trotted out when necessary.
   On the one hand, the ELCA constitution claims that it acknowledges “as one with it in faith and doctrine all churches that likewise accept the teachings of the Unaltered Augsburg Confession” (2.05). On the other hand, oneness in faith and doctrine doesn’t mean the same thing as “altar and pulpit fellowship.” Such fellowship, says the constitution (8.73) exists between the ELCA and other churches of the Lutheran World Federation, but not necessarily with Lutherans who are not LWF members. With such churches, altar and pulpit fellowship “may be locally practiced” with the approval of the synod council and the endorsement of the bishop (8.74) if it “serves the mission and ministry needs of the ELCA.” But apparently that never is the case if the other non-LWF congregation is NALC.
 
Just say yes
   Way back in the 1930s, Lars Boe, a leader in the Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran Church, proposed simply declaring unilateral altar and pulpit fellowship with all other Lutheran churches. That went nowhere then, though there were continued echoes of that approach. Shortly after the founding of the Lutheran Church in America, that body was invited to join ongoing conversations about altar and pulpit fellowship between the American Lutheran Church and the Missouri Synod. They declined, on the grounds that they viewed such talks as superfluous since they already considered themselves to be one in faith and doctrine with all other Lutherans.
   But that was then, as they say, and this is now. So ELCA pastors are welcome to supply the pulpits of the United Church of Christ, the United Methodist Church, and a bunch of others, but not the NALC—at least not without synodical approval, which is never given.
 
The heart of the matter
   All of this may seem to be a digression, but in fact that old Lutheran problem of “altar and pulpit fellowship” is really likely at the heart of why the LWF has declined to accept the NALC into its membership, at least for now. The LWF has always seen that kind of church fellowship as a corollary of participation in such a “communion of churches.” Indeed, the LWF constitution says as much: “The Lutheran World Federation is a communion of churches which confess the triune God, agree in the proclamation of the Word of God and are united in pulpit and altar fellowship.” As even the ELCA recognizes, member churches of the LWF share that relationship.
   But the NALC has, in this whole process, downplayed or even denied this implication of membership. The resolution authorizing the NALC application stated it clearly: “Full membership within the Lutheran World Federation does not require, nor imply, altar and pulpit fellowship with all member Lutheran bodies.” This is the rather odd interpretation that was offered NALC congregations when they were asked to endorse the application—an interpretation that is pretty hard to square with the LWF’s own constitution.
 
What the meaning of is is
   The NALC’s Joint Commission on Theology and Doctrine tried to argue that the LWF’s understanding of “altar and pulpit fellowship” didn’t really mean altar and pulpit fellowship. They suggested that the LWF itself has moved away from  the old language and now prefers to speak of the federation as a “communion of churches.” Citing an LWF document, Strategy 2012-2017, the commission noted that “Altar and pulpit fellowship is not mentioned even once in the catalog of Aims, Goals, and Strategy Commitments (Strategy, pp. 19-32).”
   That’s true enough, as far as it goes; but it doesn’t go very far. The cited document does quote the LWF constitution on “altar and pulpit fellowship” early on; it never repudiates or reinterprets it. If anything, it argues that “communion” is a deeper level of relationship than formal “altar and pulpit fellowship”—but it seems to assume that one presupposes the other. In this way, the LWF is like the ELCA, which has moved in recent years from talking about “altar and pulpit fellowship” (an exclusively Lutheran term, far as I know) to speaking of “full communion” (a much more ecumenical term). Theologically and linguistically, it is difficult to understand how a “communion of churches” would not be in communion with one another.
   The commission was on firmer ground when it reassured NALC congregations that the question of “who may commune with them” would remain a congregational decision. When push comes to shove, that’s pretty much the reality in most Lutheran church bodies; this doesn’t have a lot to do with the formal  relationships between those church bodies.
 
Avoiding division
   You’ve got to feel some sympathy for the LWF leaders. Committed to this concept of altar and pulpit fellowship within the Federation, they are trying to deal with the increasing hostility of some of the African churches toward the actions regarding sexuality of some of the Western churches. The crisis is not quite as advanced as in the Anglican communion, but it is getting there. Among Anglicans, declarations of “impaired communion” between churches have become fairly common. This concept is still mostly being spoken in whispers among Lutherans, but it is in the air, and LWF leaders would very much like to avoid what would be a serious fracturing of the Federation’s self-understanding.
   So it is little wonder that there would be resistance to the application of the NALC, which pretty much said upfront that they wouldn’t actually be in altar and pulpit fellowship with all the other member churches, even if they were admitted to membership. The leadership of LWF really had very little choice—not because of ELCA or ELCIC pressure, but because of the NALC’s own stance.
   All of this is very sad, as church disunity always is—understandable and even defensible as it might sometimes seem to be.
 
A not so modest proposal
   Here’s an idea: Why doesn’t the ELCA take a cue from Lars Boe and simply declare itself to be in full communion with all churches that confess the Unaltered Augsburg Confession? Not all would reciprocate, obviously, but then it’s on them, if that is their choice. Why doesn’t the ELCA step boldy into the LWF controversy and use its supposed influence—probably best behind the scenes—to pressure the LWF to admit the NALC to full membership? Why don’t the ELCA bishops say, “Well, this is the new reality, and if an NALC congregation asks an ELCA pastor now and then to provide word and sacrament to an NALC congregation—with whom, by the way, we have unity in faith and doctrine— we won’t hinder them”?
   Not going to happen, I’m afraid. Matthew Harrison was right: May “God grant repentance to all of us Lutherans on the eve of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.”     —by Richard O. Johnson, editor
   
 

The Rev. Richard O. Johnson, STS

J. Thomas Shelley

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Re: Lutheran Disunity: the old, old story (July 2014)
« Reply #1 on: July 17, 2014, 09:32:05 PM »
The final sentence is truly a pastoral and prophetic word.

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« Last Edit: July 17, 2014, 09:33:48 PM by Rev. J. Thomas Shelley, STS »
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Re: Lutheran Disunity: the old, old story (July 2014)
« Reply #2 on: July 17, 2014, 10:43:31 PM »
A fair and informative analysis of what the issue.  Thank you.
David Charlton  

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Re: Lutheran Disunity: the old, old story (July 2014)
« Reply #3 on: July 18, 2014, 02:15:15 AM »

Just say yes
   Way back in the 1930s, Lars Boe, a leader in the Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran Church, proposed simply declaring unilateral altar and pulpit fellowship with all other Lutheran churches. That went nowhere then, though there were continued echoes of that approach. Shortly after the founding of the Lutheran Church in America, that body was invited to join ongoing conversations about altar and pulpit fellowship between the American Lutheran Church and the Missouri Synod. They declined, on the grounds that they viewed such talks as superfluous since they already considered themselves to be one in faith and doctrine with all other Lutherans.
   But that was then, as they say, and this is now. So ELCA pastors are welcome to supply the pulpits of the United Church of Christ, the United Methodist Church, and a bunch of others, but not the NALC—at least not without synodical approval, which is never given.
 



Which is a tragic twisting of a narrative I wrote on this forum 3 years ago, a narrative which concludes with an action recommended by the ELCA Church Council and enacted by the 2001 Churchwide Assembly that (in case the ELCA's position had been unclear earlier) indeed just said "yes":


Here's what the constitution says:

8.74. This church, in accord with constitutional provision 2.05., ...

2.05 reads, and has since the ELCA's formation:

Quote
This church accepts the Unaltered Augsburg Confession as a true witness to the Gospel, acknowledging as one with it in faith and doctrine all churches that likewise accept the teachings of the Unaltered Augsburg Confession.

This drew upon the LCA's constitutional provision,
Quote
This church accepts the Unaltered Augsburg Confession and Luther's Small Catechism as true witnesses to the Gospel, and acknowledges as one with it in faith and doctrine all churches that likewise accept the teachings of these symbols.

I recall some of the discussion when the LCA and ALC declared Altar and Pulpit Fellowship, for many in the LCA questioned the necessity of such an agreement given our acknowledgement above.  That's what is behind a comment I've posted several times here, that from our perspective, we are already in such fellowship with the other Lutheran churches, whether they recognize it or not.

8.47 was added at the 2001 CWA and the official recommendation of the ELCA Church Council to adopt it reads,


Quote
To adopt new constitutional provision 8.74. to affirm local implementation of the commitment to Lutheran altar and pulpit fellowship as expressed in this church's Confession of Faith and to provide for local implementation of such fellowship:

Those who seek to use 8.47 to restrict "local implementation of Lutheran altar and pulpit fellowship," as some ELCA officials are now doing, are using this provision to the opposite effect of its stated intent!

Christe eleison, Steven+

« Last Edit: July 18, 2014, 02:17:03 AM by The Rev. Steven P. Tibbetts, STS »
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Re: Lutheran Disunity: the old, old story (July 2014)
« Reply #4 on: July 19, 2014, 12:45:00 PM »
  I appreciate the thoughtfulness of this article. I honestly think the request of the NALC for membership in the Lutheran World Federation was premature. I say this understanding some of the reasons for the request going forward as early as it did. But I think more time needs to pass (not sure how much more time) in order for the NALC to figure out how it really wants to relate to the ELCA. While I regret the recent moves made by the LCMS, at least they are being consistent. You want to relate to the ELCA, you have to relate to ALL of the ELCA: women clergy, rostered leaders in publicly accountable ... same sex relationships, folks in position 1, 2, 3, AND 4, the most traditional congregations to the most "out there" experiments in missional thinking. We may be a mess and a hodge-podge of ideas and practices, but that's what one gets in being in "pulpit and altar fellowship." The LCMS finally said "No" to trying to make a relationship work. The NALC might think that being in the LWF they could pick and choose who to relate to, and found that the LWF decided that isn't going to work, at least not right now. I honestly think the LWF made the right decision, for now. I hope the NALC sees this as an opportunity to let things slow down while time and opportunity allows new relationships and "configurations" to develop and mature. 

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Re: Lutheran Disunity: the old, old story (July 2014)
« Reply #5 on: July 20, 2014, 07:47:06 AM »
Good, fair article, Pastor Johnson, raising many of the concerns and questions many in the NALC had during the discussion and debate.  However, you failed to mention one important item.  Since February of 2013, the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus is no longer in altar or pulpit fellowship with the ELCA or the Swedish Lutheran Church.  Yet, they remain full members of the LWF.  And there has been no effort to remove them.  There is at least a seeming inconsistency there.

Marshall Hahn

Richard Johnson

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Re: Lutheran Disunity: the old, old story (July 2014)
« Reply #6 on: July 20, 2014, 12:19:47 PM »
I appreciate that, Marshall, but I think there's quite a difference between how you deal with a church that is already a member--and presumably has been a member since before the LWF began defining itself as a "communion" more than a "federation"--and how you deal with a church that says, from the get-go, "We're not going to go along with that, but we want in anyway."

This is not a perfect analogy, and kind of odd since it's really an ELCA analogy, but at the merger ELCA congregations were permitted to keep their existing constitutions, even where they conflicted with the model. But a new congregation that was admitted had to follow the model. Yet the old ones who didn't immediately conform to the model weren't kicked out.

Or another analogy: in the Society of the Holy Trinity, we speak of "growing into the Rule." There are plenty of us who don't perfectly conform to the ideals of the Rule, even though we say that the Rule expresses our hope and intention for our own ministry and life. Each of us, when we sign the Rule, admits that we're not there yet, but this is our intention. But it would be odd for a pastor to sign the Rule and say up front, "Well, I don't really believe in private confession, and have no intention of 'growing into' that part of the Rule."

So there's a difference, seems to me, between struggling with one's identity as part of a group,  coming into the group with up front objections and reservations.
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Re: Lutheran Disunity: the old, old story (July 2014)
« Reply #7 on: July 20, 2014, 01:36:32 PM »
Or another analogy: in the Society of the Holy Trinity, we speak of "growing into the Rule." There are plenty of us who don't perfectly conform to the ideals of the Rule, even though we say that the Rule expresses our hope and intention for our own ministry and life. Each of us, when we sign the Rule, admits that we're not there yet, but this is our intention. But it would be odd for a pastor to sign the Rule and say up front, "Well, I don't really believe in private confession, and have no intention of 'growing into' that part of the Rule."

The Rule is more a blueprint for our future than a snapshot of our present.
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Re: Lutheran Disunity: the old, old story (July 2014)
« Reply #8 on: July 21, 2014, 02:54:49 PM »
Quote

So there's a difference, seems to me, between struggling with one's identity as part of a group,  coming into the group with up front objections and reservations.

Yes, I can understand the distinction.  Except that there is no struggle on the part of EECMY.  They have no intention of changing their decision and seeking full communion with the ELCA and the Swedish church unless they rescind their actions.  This was made clear to me by a number of people when I was in Ethiopia in May.  I can also understand the LWF moving slowly in responding to EECMY's actions, but at present there seems to be no real response at all.  So, at least from the outside, there appears to be an inconsistency.

Marshall Hahn

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Re: Lutheran Disunity: the old, old story (July 2014)
« Reply #9 on: July 21, 2014, 08:34:50 PM »
Quote

So there's a difference, seems to me, between struggling with one's identity as part of a group,  coming into the group with up front objections and reservations.

Yes, I can understand the distinction.  Except that there is no struggle on the part of EECMY.  They have no intention of changing their decision and seeking full communion with the ELCA and the Swedish church unless they rescind their actions.  This was made clear to me by a number of people when I was in Ethiopia in May.  I can also understand the LWF moving slowly in responding to EECMY's actions, but at present there seems to be no real response at all.  So, at least from the outside, there appears to be an inconsistency.

Marshall Hahn

I'm not privy to the inner workings of LWF, but I do know that sometimes "responses" in sensitive areas like this are mostly done quietly and out of public view.
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Re: Lutheran Disunity: the old, old story (July 2014)
« Reply #10 on: December 28, 2021, 03:59:12 PM »
I haven't read ALPB for some time -- and have only recenlty come back to it, perusing what is there.  This article was rather strange -- though chastising Matthew Harrison for using the word "pathetic" in his characterization of the LWF action regarding the application of the NALC for membership it then proceeded to prove why his statement was correct.  Seems a bit of the "pot calling the kettle black."