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Broken Covenant—or Flawed Prenuptial?

by Dr. Tim Huffman (WordAlone Board Member)

July, 2002

photo of Dr. Gordon S. (Tim) Huffman, Jr.David L. Veal argued in the November 11 “Viewpoint” that the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) has broken its covenant of full communion with the ECUSA by unilaterally revising the document Called to Common Mission (CCM). Despite his condescending tone (“authoritarian tradition,” “earnest but unseasoned,” “adolescent and self-centered”), Canon Veal makes some valid points and raises serious concerns about the future of this relationship. Canon Veal deserves a better answer than the bland reassurances of denominational leaders that all will be well. All may not be well, and the ordination exceptions bylaw may point to more serious troubles ahead.

What is surprising is that anyone should be surprised! Some Lutherans have been trying to point out that this is a document that papers over fundamental disagreements, and any doubt about the opposing understandings of CCM should have been removed by the dueling resolutions passed by the respective conferences of bishops before the votes.

Lutherans were not told the whole truth about the implications of CCM. There was a deliberate attempt to disguise the fact that the ordination/installation of bishops, utilizing the traditional elements of ordination, goes far beyond a functional installation into a time-bound job. Lutheran leaders continue to deny the clear intention of CCM that the re-imposition of the preface to the ordinals will apply to Lutheran ministry, even though the ELCA Office of Ecumenical Affairs affirmed that Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson was in fact installed into “the Anglican historic episcopate.” Many Lutherans are shocked to hear an ontological view of ordination, especially when they are expanding the practice of “lay presidency,” for practical as well as theological reasons. Lutherans were assured that their 1993 decision to maintain a unitary ordained ministry, with pastors and bishops as ministry “peers” and with no ordination of deacons, was not contradicted by accepting the historic episcopate, which seems in turn to have shocked ECUSA bishops.

Episcopalians would not be surprised at this contretemps if they had been paying attention to the ELCA itself, and not to the reassurances of a handful of ELCA “experts.” The Concordat was only finally approved by a slim 5-3 vote of Lutheran dialoguers after years of deadlock. Although the Churchwide Assembly of the ELCA is a determinedly non-representative body and a reliable rubber-stamp for leadership’s proposals, it has managed twice to reject proposals about ecclesiology. Here Canon Veal’s note that the ELCA is young and very new at ecumenism is on the mark. Only an institution with so little self-identity would have allowed its Assembly to approve CCM. As Lutherans learn more about what has happened (73% know little or nothing about CCM), more and more are finding both content and process unacceptable.

If Episcopalians are surprised by this, Christopher Epting should not be. Bishop Epting met with the “Common Ground Consultation” in Milwaukee in February, 2000, and responded to the “Common Ground Resolution,” approved by 17 of the 18 participants. This was the only national and broadly representative consultation of the ELCA on the matter, trying to avoid the impending split of the ELCA over CCM. Convened by Mark Hanson, the consultation affirmed both non-episcopal ordination of pastors and synods that would be free from the Anglican episcopate. This gave Bishop Epting a significant “heads-up” about the ELCA issues six months before Denver 2000, and he agreed that the prospects were “messy” but said that the proposals should not derail the agreement.

What lies ahead? Will there be significant numbers of non-episcopal ordinations? That really will depend on seminarians, who now can request it within official ELCA policy. Bishops, desperate for new graduates, would not be able to reject such requests if seminarians insisted that the option be available for themselves or their peers, and some bishops have already found ways to accommodate such requests.

A sign of Lutheran determination is that in the year 2000, when ELCA leadership was struggling to get bishops to rule resolutions about CCM out of order, 21 synods (of 65) ignored national leaders and passed resolutions guaranteeing new ordinands the freedom to choose non-episcopal ordination, and 11 synods guaranteed newly elected bishops the right to reject installation/ordination into the historic episcopate. These are indeed “unilateral” actions, in defiance of both CCM and ELCA leadership. Episcopalians might also note that of the 6 or 7 persons responsible for pushing CCM through the ELCA, all but one are now retired or fired. The tide may well have shifted. Many synodical bishops, closer to the pulse of the churches, are concerned about the potential loss of support, especially from the larger congregations, most of which have little use for exaggerated claims by bishops. The conference of bishops supported the ordination exception bylaw unanimously, despite pleas from the Presiding Bishop to reject it; he later supported it at the Indianapolis Assembly.

In the ELCA, the work of synods and the salaries of bishops depend on voluntary contributions by congregations, with the national church dependent in turn on semi-voluntary funding from synods. With contributions from congregations declining, growing numbers of congregations joining dissenting movements or even withdrawing, and with the influential mega-churches becoming more and more detached from the ELCA in all but name, satisfying Episcopalian quibbles about an agreement designed to alter Lutheran practice and theology may not be worth the price. Certainly a majority of Lutherans would never have agreed to surrender part of their identity for an ecumenical piece of paper, if they had been given a vote. Only a tiny minority of Lutherans believes “ecumenism” is worth splitting the church.

Episcopalians have reason to be angry. They were assured that CCM is consistent with the Lutheran Confessions, but many Lutheran scholars, including two retired Presiding Bishops, disagree. They were assured that the “dissident minority” was small, regional and in decline, all false. They were assured that if the contract could only be approved, Lutherans would be stuck with it; but the exceptions by-law shows that changes are possible. The wise counsel of Bishop Griswold and Archbishop Carey that the ELCA should take more time to assure genuine agreement was ignored.

It seems that both sides are beginning to count the cost.

Dr. Tim Huffman is the John H.F. Kuder Professor of Christian Mission at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus, Ohio.