Every Man a Synod: Micro-Lutheranism (Aug. 2004)

Started by Richard Johnson, September 02, 2004, 03:46:44 PM

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Richard Johnson

by Russell E. Saltzman
(From August 2004 Forum Letter)

No one can say how extensive a schism will be in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America over gay ordination, nor even how formal. Some congregations doubtless will simply go slipsliding away (as a number already have), unaffiliated and remaining ELCA only in name. A not insignificant number already are finding new places for their benevolence funds, with or without any formal notice to the synod bishop (formal notice, in my opinion, is the only honest way to do it). Others, though, will seek a clean break from their synod and the ELCA, a relatively cumbersome process.

There is another route — call it "slip out the back, Jack" — available via Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ (LCMC). The LCMC is presently composed of about 100 or so congregations, most of whom still retain a formal membership in the ELCA. However, because some of the congregations comprising LCMC's membership have formally departed the ELCA, the office of the secretary has for some time carried the LCMC as an independent Lutheran church body (ELCA 2004 Yearbook, p.791). The ELCA has no provision for dual memberships, so ELCA congregations that vote to associate with the LCMC have in effect, if not in actual fact, left the ELCA — all without any of that formally messy two-congregational-votes-90-daysapart- meeting-with-the-bishop stuff. A majority of the congregational voters simply vote "yes," and there they are, out.

Well, kind of. Joining the LCMC while retaining ELCA affiliation does leave a congregation open to formal expulsion by their synod's council, but that is not likely to happen. Expulsion proceedings begin upon petition by the bishop and enforcement is being left to the discretion of synod bishops. Most of them with some singular exceptions are keeping to a hands-off approach.

It is also a safe bet the LCMC is unlikely to have much appeal for "centrist" but dissident ELCA parishes. As an LCMC (but still ELCA) pastor tells us, their long term vision is to be a truly centrist Lutheran denomination. But as he frankly admits, that's up in the air. "They," he says of the LCMC, "will either become centrist or become weird. We won't know for at least 3-5 years which way they'll end up."

Ask me, though, and I'll vote for weird — though in deference to LCMC board chair G. Barry Anderson, an occasional e-mail buddy, let me say I mean that in best possible sense of the word, to be sure. I'll also leave the door wide open the possibility that time may prove me flat wrong. You may view matters for yourself at <www.lcmc.net>.

LCMC does see itself as a "centrist" lifeboat. There are five LCMC districts and new ones can be formed around geography, theology, values, shared interests, congregational characteristics, worship styles; take your pick or even add one. The largest, the non-geographic Augsburg District , is none too generously described by an LCMC member as a band of "confessional purists" that irritates nearly everyone within hailing distance.

LCMC was born out of the Word Alone Network in 2000, initially as an auxiliary conference for congregations anxious to scoot from the ELCA. Initial conventions were held in conjunction with Word Alone national gatherings. LCMC thus carries some of the heat left over from the Lutheran/Episcopal agreement, Called to Common Mission, and the fight about bishops in succession. Word Alone and LCMC did not entirely separate until the fall of 2003. Where Word Alone describes itself as a reform movement for the ELCA, most in the LCMC would scoff at any possibility of reforming what cannot be reformed.

I do not see how the LCMC has any possibility of becoming a "national" Lutheran church. As part of their reaction against the "priestcraft" (a favored word for ordered ministry) of Called to Common Mission, the LCMC constitution explicitly permits ordination by laity (though none of record, so far as I know, have occurred). While acknowledging that as "a radical departure from current practice," LCMC cites a few odd precedents from the Reformation period as justification. It thereby sets itself well outside of "centrist" Lutheranism. In this sense, the LCMC is extra-confessional and somewhat sectarian and, sorry to say, is likely to remain that way.

Which is the same that may be said of nearly all the other micro-Lutheran sects in America.

I spent five dismal hours some days back visiting all — all — the Lutheran church body web sites I could locate, 33 sites altogether. My first observation, no list that claims to contain all the Lutheran denominational bodies in America does. The ELCA Yearbook has only 24 (two of those are Canadian). One online source lists 20, another 33, and yet another 39. Had I kept going I probably could have flushed our more, but my lifespan is limited.

My second observation, and I am truly trying to put this kindly, every one of them hardly without exception is founded on a quirk, a twitch,
a tic, a wrinkle, a twist, or a whim of theology.

(continued in Part 2)

Copyright 2004 ALPB

The Rev. Richard O. Johnson, STS

Richard Johnson

(continued from previous post)
There's one small group split from its parent group on whether the King James Version is the only acceptable English-language Bible (they say it is). One looks like 16th century Roman Catholicism in every way, save indulgences and the doctrine of justification by faith (they forbid the first and adhere to the second). There's another micro-group that split from yet another tiny outfit because it refused to forbid members from purchasing financial products from the Lutheran fraternal insurance companies. Then there is one that first tried out The American Association of Lutheran Churches (TAALC) — itself a split from the American Lutheran Church in the pre-merger run up. That was unsatisfactory so they next joined a split from the TAALC that had formed the Lutheran Ministerium and Synod-USA. When that didn't work, they gave up looking and decided to form their own, the Evangelical Lutheran Conference and Ministerium (ELCM).
The seven ELCM congregations, scattered over five states, bill themselves as "Centrist Lutherans rejoining Muhlenberg." One of the two Pennsylvania congregations, only 5 years old, claims to be "American Lutheranism: The way it was in Pennsylvania." In homage to the way it was, the congregation strictly adheres to the second setting of the red Service Book and Hymnal.
Personally, I have grown rather fond of the ELCM. At least I could follow things. Doping out the history of some of these groups, and their arcane theological objections about the rest of us, makes a bowl of spaghetti look as if it was organized by a control freak.
If we are talking schism, are any of these micro-Lutheran bodies viable opportunities? And should anybody even be talking about abandoning the ELCA, yet?
Short answers are, No, and a qualified Yes.
No, because "centrist" confessional Lutherans (and that phrase still fits most ELCA members and their pastors) want a denomination that is broadly ecumenical, well able to form and maintain strong international links, one that does not choke on women's ordination and where the liturgy is not in danger of being PC'd to death. As much as anything they want to belong to a denomination that understands and acts on the notion that it exists to aid congregations in their parish ministry at home and elsewhere. This means, in general, they want a church that thinks "church," but one which is shorn of the ELCA's accumulated excesses, including, but not limited to, the flirtation with gay ordination.
That is not a description that fits any of the micro-Lutherans represented by the web sites I visited.
And a qualified yes — qualified in the sense that when a storm approaches it is prudent to have a ready shelter.
There are numerous conversations going on about when, whether, and how to organize a socalled "non-geographic confessing synod." But unless there is some real effort at pulling together both the "protestant" and "evangelical catholic" wings of American Lutheranism — those broadly "centrist" theological elements in the ELCA most dedicated to the Augsburg Confession — then what's the point?
Because without that effort, all an ELCA schism is likely to produce is another 33 web sites for special-interest micro-sects, where, to paraphrase Huey Long, "every man's a synod."
And this I fear will be the Lutheran future if the ELCA adopts gay ordination and the coincident blessing of same-sex unions. If the battle over Called to Common Mission cracked the ELCA, gay ordination certainly will tear it asunder. It doesn't take an awful lot of foresight to see that. This, for example, is only a partial list of very active ELCA dissident groups: American Lutheran Council, Called to Faithfulness, Evangelical Lutheran Confessing Fellowship, Great Lakes Confessional Lutherans, Lasting Word, Lutherans for Biblical Morality, Lutherans Repent, Pauline Fellowship, Resource Team for Marriage and a Christian Sexual Ethic, Truth in Love Lutherans. I included only the ones with web pages and checkbooks, but along with these are perhaps yet another dozen or more informal "confessing fellowships" scampering over the ELCA landscape.
On the one hand, to be sure, there is something very, very encouraging and not a little exhilarating about these spontaneous outbursts of confessional fidelity. (Is it immodest to mention that some, if not most, of these groups were organized in the wake of the ALPB Conference on Christian Sexuality in 2002?)
But on the other hand, all these randomly organized confessional groups risk furthering the Balkanization of American Lutheranism. Some stand a very good chance of becoming the microsects of tomorrow. And that is not encouraging, nor is it in the least exhilarating.
(Continued in next post)
Copyright 2004 ALPB
The Rev. Richard O. Johnson, STS

Richard Johnson

(continued from previous post)
It is possible to foresee a smaller version of the ELCA — but still large enough to be a "national" church — arising out of the present synodical structure, under the right conditions.
Consider this. I know one bishop, himself appalled by the 2005 prospect, who serves a largely rural synod composed of the usual mix of pastors and parishes all living comfortably together with "high church" and "low church" attitudes, a synod broadly diverse in all the usual and usually good Lutheran ways.
This bishop once publicly predicted — in print, no less — that approval of gay ordination would leave his official synod with 12 congregations,
meaning some 160 congregations would leave the ELCA as promptly as possible. He has since revised his "remnant" estimate upward, somewhat. Yet even allowing that he was exaggerating for effect (he says he was not), a schism only half as large as he guesses — or only a third — is as daunting as it is tragic. But where would those congregations go?
Here's a prospect, more real in some synods than others, but a prospect nonetheless: What if those departing ELCA congregations got
together and called him for their bishop? What if similar confessing fellowships arose in other synods, each prepared to find a confessional bishop? What if a present ELCA bishop with guts, verve and nerve did some of the organizing? There'd be a bishop, preparing shelter for the flock.
Shelter. That's one reason why traditionalist pastors in as many synods as possible should begin to organize themselves now into confessional fellowships — call them "committees of correspondence."
They should organize, make national connections; exchange phone numbers, even.
They should pray without ceasing for the storm to pass, but they will need shelter if it does not.  
—— Russell E. Saltzman
Copyright 2004 ALPB
The Rev. Richard O. Johnson, STS

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