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How did we get here?

by Dr. Roy Harrisville

November 19, 2002


The question, "How did we get here?" has to do with the occasions and circumstances leading to the ELCA’s move toward Canterbury and Rome. My answer to the question rests in part on personal observation and experience. This gives it a parochial flavor, but will not, I hope, render it valueless.

By way of introduction, as a youth in the Norwegian Lutheran Church in America I learned that some of our pastors had joined the St. James Liturgical Society, and were advocating the use of certain appointments for altar and pulpit--“antependia” they were called--as well as the wearing of habits suited to the various seasons of the church year. Members from at least one of the parent bodies of that church had been known to wear the chasuble at the Lord’s Supper, but now the practice of “vesting” as it came to be known was becoming universal. The prestekrage together with the simple black robe was exchanged for cassock, surplice, and stole in red, white, green, purple, and black, depending on the season, and, again, with some, exchanged for the chasuble. This change in matters of liturgical dress seemed to occur together with the substitution of the term “Evangelical” for “Norwegian” in the title of our church, as well as with an increase in observance of the Lord’s Supper. What functioned as cause or effect among these changes I have not bothered to investigate, but believe the displacement of the hymnary I had known with another created by several of the Lutheran bodies in America put the period to an era which began with immigration and signaled quite another. Aside from questions of cause or effect the result was that, in matters of form at least, my church began to take on certain similarities with other Christian communions. It came to look more and more “American.”

I remember my father’s returning from “synod meeting” at which the older clergy repeatedly resisted erasing the word “Norwegian” from the church’s name, and angrily calling it “one more Mother’s Day celebration.” An inheritor of the Haugean, laic, sometimes anti-clerical revival in Norway, my grandfather nonetheless wore the “turned-around collar” daily, spoke the king’s English, and was pastor of the first all-English speaking Norwegian Lutheran congregation in Chicago. In his “Persons and Places,” George Santayana, the Spanish-American pragmatist wrote that Scandinavians were the most easily acclimated to any new land, that they functioned as the fountainhead of new civilizations, while the remainder of Europeans tended to live in pales. But in their eagerness to assimilate—on the first Sunday nearest November eleventh, my father actually allowed veterans of the First World War to troop into the sanctuary, flags unfurled, trailing all their baggage, and scaring the living daylights out of me—in their embarrassment over precisely the type characterization which has earned the dabbler and dilletante Garrison Keillor national fame, they had no intention of altering the structure of the church or of warping the scriptural message to the alteration. They did, however, give birth to a new generation which would further distance itself from what it imagined to be the “ghetto.”

I. What occurred with that new generation involved radical liturgical change, a construing of the church’s unity solely or almost solely in terms of visibility, and preoccupation with ecclesiology, with structure. Again, I am restricting myself to my own experience, which means the experience of my own family of faith.

When the all- or almost all-Lutheran hymnary known as the Service Book and Hymnal (“the red hymnbook”) came to replace what I had known as a child or confirmand and was rich in what was dubbed as overly subjective (such as for example, Hauge’s favorite, “Jesus, I long for Thy blessed communion), when contemporary worship manuals began to appear in advance of the Lutheran Book of Worship, or when the multi-cultural With One Voice found its way to our pews, a sea change in liturgical practice and in its underlying rationale took place. The evidence is everywhere. The Bach chorale, together with Bach’s arrangements virtually disappeared. In the list of authors, composers, and sources of hymns in the Lutheran Book of Worship, a certain, to me unknown and unidentifiable Carl F. Schalk is mentioned thirty-five times, and Johann Sebastian Bach, “the Lord God of music,” only twice. The old transpositions of “Komm Süsser Tod,” “Herzlich Tut Verlangen,” “Jesu Meine Freude,” or a translation of “Ein Feste Burg” approximating the original, together with the translations of hymns in Landstad’s Psalmebog, and which gave content to my faith and confession, were no more. A version of the Psalms from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer was substituted for any one of the recognized English translations, due to its allegedly more “sing-able” character. Now there came to be talk of the “Eucharist,” and “eucharistic practice,” replacing reference to “Holy Communion” or “The Lord’s Supper” as per New Testament usage. There was reversion to the medieval Offertory. For example, under the rubric of “Offerings” a contemporary worship manual reads:

Liturgically, the emphasis is upon the presentation... It is good if the distribution vessels for the sacrament are not placed on the altar until this time. In the presentation, the gifts of money come first, followed by the bread and wine in their storage vessels.1

Aside from their recitation isolated from the context of preaching as constituting the sacrament, the verba came to be muffled by prayer. Incidentally, I do not think that Augustine’s or Luther’s verbum accedit ad elementum fit sacramentum applies solely to the recitation of the Words of Institution. The Word of God connected with the element and on which our faith depends involves public proclamation. At any rate, in The Lutheran Book of Worship the verba are muted by a prayer opening with the words: “Holy God, mighty Lord, gracious Father: Endless is your mercy and eternal your reign....” and ending with: “you sent your Son... In the night in which he was betrayed, etc.”2

A greater liturgical change occurred with the so-called epiclesis, somewhat muted in “The Great Thanksgiving” of the The Lutheran Book of Worship, but in full array in its parent manual. The relevant portion reads, “Send the power of your Holy Spirit upon us (He extends his hands over the bread and wine) and upon this bread and wine.”3

In the multi-cultural With One Voice,” the Johannine reference to eating the flesh and drinking the blood of the Son of Man appears to retreat before the scholastic notion of transsubstantiation in the Marty Haugan creation titled “Here in This Place,” part of which reads: “Gather us to drink the wine of compassion, give us to eat the bread that is you....” The language is strange to me....

Aside from the liturgico-theological arguments for these alterations, their result was to confuse the concept of sacrament with sacrifice, a distinction which the Reformer and every faithful pastor from my father on down had struggled to preserve. It is no secret that Luther’s reform of the mass, described by some as clumsy, a “hatchet job,” sprang from the conviction that the canon had attempted to reconcile the irreconcilable ―the action of Christ and human action. Evidence of his conviction is not hard to find; In his “Smalcald Articles” (1537) he wrote as follows of the liturgy and practices grown up around the Lord’s Supper:

It is held that this sacrifice or work of the Mass...delivers people from sin both here in this life and beyond in purgatory, even though the Lamb of God alone should and must do this.4

And of the distinction between sacrament and sacrifice he stated:

For this is the true God who gives, but Does not take; helps, but asks no help — In short, who does everything and gives Everything, yet needs no one. And all This he does freely out of pure mercy and Without merit for the unworthy and Undeserving...5

And it is no secret that whether or not he talked past Erasmus, his treatise on the bound will was simply another way of distinguishing what God does and what is left to us to do. Confusing the two rendered the need for Christ’s coming problematic. Confusion of the two in the sacrament renders Christ’s ownership of it problematic, making of what he does for us something done for him, a Eucharist.

II. Respecting the unity of the church, those of my acquaintance who construe it solely or almost solely in terms of demonstrability, almost always refer to Jesus’ prayer in John 17. Of course, others make wider appeal to the New Testament, for example, to the Corinthians correspondence, to Galatians, Philippians, and Ephesians, but in my hearing Jesus’ prayer in John 17 has gotten the lion’s share. The relevant portion reads:

I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one.. .The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one (Jn.17: 20-23).

Whether or not these verses imply that Jesus intended to found a church in terms of an organization will always be moot. Some of my friends have interpreted them as spelling unity in terms of the tangible and organizational, and have set them as the agenda for every church merger of recent memory. It is true that unity with Christ is not a mere abstraction. But in what does it consist? Consider this answer: First of all Jesus is praying that the unity between him and the Father will be mirrored in the believers’ unity with him and the Father. He prays “that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us....” (many witnesses read, “that they may all be one in us”). Now the unity of the Father and the Son is not demonstrable, nor is the unity of believers with Father and Son. This does not render their unity invisible. For though the unity of the Father and the Son is not demonstrable, it is nonetheless visible, that is, visible to faith. And, though the unity of believers with the Father and the Son is not demonstrable, it too is visible to faith. But being visible to faith and demonstrable are two different things. Second, whatever unity exists among believers is again a mirror or reflection of their unity with the Father and the Son, a unity that is not demonstrable, though not on that account invisible, since it occurs within history, in the hearts and minds of living human beings. But again, though visible to faith the unity among believers is not on that account demonstrable. No doubt, it should become demonstrable. The great Swabian biblical scholar Adolf Schlatter wrote that believers’ faith should lead them to each other and make of them a community of the same mind.6 But nothing is said of that in John 17, and certainly nothing of the community’s taking on demonstrability in a particular form. Third, Jesus’ petition in verse 23 which the NRSV translates to read “that they may become completely one,” rather than setting a goal toward which believers move or are moved, may actually denote a goal reached with the conclusion of his activity on earth. In other words, it may refer to a unity already achieved. Such a reading may have prompted one old friend to write years ago:

First of all, then, the unity of the Church is not a problem or a question, but a given not a task, but a gift, and not a goal toward which we move, but the presupposition and basis on which we proceed, the fixed point from which we set out.7

If this reading of John 17 has any legitimacy, it cancels out an interpretation of Jesus’ high priestly prayer in support of tangible, demonstrable unity, or at least exempts it from any discussion of unity construed as tangible.

III. In recent years, my church has been absorbed with matters of structure, in particular, with involving its bishops so-called in the “Christian fiction” of the historic episcopate. Events leading to the approval of “Called to Common Mission” at the ELCA’s 1999 Assembly, reveal a history of misrepresentation, unilateral action by officialdom, broken promises, and the suppression of dissent. For example, when in1991 a minority of participants in the Lutheran-Episcopal dialogue registered dissent over the statement that a common ministry would occur with the full incorporation of all active bishops in the historic episcopate, their dissent was described as a misreading, when in fact it was the task of the committee to determine whether or not such full incorporation should occur. Six years later the presiding bishop of the ELCA appointed a new committee to draft a new document and ruled that no proposal could be written which did not provide for adoption of the historic episcopate. This committee worked in closed session, kept no minutes, and disallowed dissent. In the same year, 1997, the ELCA bishops authored a resolution stating that adoption of the threefold pattern of ministry a la the Episcopal Church was not required. The new committee met again, kept no minutes, permitted no voting, and again ruled out dissent. When a minority member nevertheless insisted on the recording of his dissent, the majority promised to do so. The promise was not kept. The final draft of “Called to Common Mission” was approved at the 1999 Assembly. Later, the secretary of the church informed Episcopal officials that since the Assembly did not vote on the bishops’ resolution, the Episcopal Church was not required to consider it. From my observation, in matters of structure the ELCA has got where it has come to by way of administrative fiat, by a resolving of disputes that result not only in one side’s prevailing but in its sole existence.

In a two-year old letter one erstwhile co-editor of Called to Common Mission wrote of the “cloud” on the horizon of Lutheran-Episcopal relations. A “small” “but vocal minority” opposed the rule that a bishop must preside at the ordination of pastors. To mollify this minority, or as he wrote, to “allow for the respect for consciences that some are now demanding,” the author repeated the refrain that temporary provision be made for “exceptions in unusual circumstances.” Adding that permanent provision for such exceptions would alter the character of the Lutheran-Episcopal relation, thus giving rise to “another bruising debate, another round of bitterness,” he concluded that such provision must be made subject to a time limit.8 He said, application of “respect for consciences” to a matter of Christian teaching suggested a confusion of the spheres of love and faith. That is a sword that cuts both ways. Luther spoke for me when he said:

They even subvert many good men, who suppose that we disagree with them because of sheer stubbornness or some other personal feeling.... we are surely prepared to observe peace and love with all men, provided that they leave the doctrine of faith perfect and sound for us... it belongs to faith to bear nothing whatever and to yield to no one. Love yields freely, believes, condones, and tolerates everything. Therefore it is often deceived.9

In midst of this dispute, one curious erratic looms up on the terrain. A decade prior to his 1997 ruling on the non-negotiability of the historic episcopate, the presiding bishop of the ELCA published a translation of a two-volume commentary on the Augsburg Confession by the Erlangen scholar, Wilhelm Maurer. In that work Maurer had cited Luther’s contention that no legislation in the church could be derived from the gospel’s central core. He further documented the Reformer’s indifference toward the historic office of bishop, his rejection of the sacramental consecration of priests, as well as his conceding Episcopal jurisdiction by human right (de lure humano), but on condition that the bishop was merely to corroborate what had been established by God and accepted by the congregation, his rights thus extending no further than those of any ordinary pastor.10 Did the bishop translate a book with which he did not agree? I asked him, and got no answer.

A further example of church leadership by way of administrative fiat yet wider in scope has to do with the Roman Catholic-Lutheran dialogue concerning justification. Following a first report and three dialogues the final draft of a document appeared in 1997 titled “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification.” This document states that “all the dialogue reports as well as the responses show a high degree of agreement in their approaches and conclusions” Preamble, para. 4). When in 1998 the Lutheran World Council and the Catholic Church issued an “Official Common Statement” asserting that on the basis of the Joint Declaration consensus had been reached in the understanding of justification,” three hundred evangelical and Lutheran pastors and theologians in Germany replied that consensus had not been reached, that the statement fundamentally called into question the Lutheran doctrine of justification, that it assumed a notion of purpose irreconcilable with Reformation criteria. It added that the statement had not received the consent of the bodies responsible for doctrinal questions, and warned against its signing. A year earlier, a Lutheran bishop had stated that the Roman Catholic Congregation of Faith had altered an initial paragraph of the Joint Declaration to read that “the doctrine of justification. . .is an 11 indispensable criterion” (para.14), an “unfortunate” change, since it appeared to rank the criterion of justification alongside others.

IV. As to the question WHY we have got where we have come to, I tend to give large place to non-theological factors. First of all, among my acquaintances, initial embarrassment over a mid-western, pietistic, anti-authoritarian, ghetto-existence has been altered to the Oedipal, the patricidal, the urge to kill the father defined as community history or tradition. When, for example, the friends of many years who embrace an ecclesiology directly antithetical to what they received tell me that the questions and concerns of the Reformation are no longer relevant to their existence, that they no longer consider themselves Protestants, I read that announcement less in terms of biblical or theological conviction than of the urge to destroy a community which they imagine abused them or gave them no real home. Second, others, located principally on either coast, isolated, surrounded by communities ignorant or scornful of their origins, yearn for a status which they believe incorporation in an upper-class and affluent albeit defunct denomination can give. They are like the citizens of my state, a “fly-over” region, the brunt of jokes from east and west, afflicted with the “Minnesota syndrome.” Unsatisfied with functioning as the nation’s brain-pool, or as producer of some of the most significant political movements in the country, they lurch toward imitation of east or west in a hunger for status. Third, still others have been consumed with the desire for power. In a recent work12 the celebrated historian, philosopher, and poet, Robert Conquest, gives an analysis of the ideologue alarmingly applicable to those in control of our church. The ideologue, writes Conquest, is a victim of something like monomania, with a family resemblance to the ideologue of totalitarianism. He is hostile to reality, persuaded by smoke and mirrors, accepts information about matters for which there is totally contradictory evidence, and is incapable of conceiving minds and persons markedly different from himself. The ideologue does not act so much in the real interests of those he purportedly serves as for some idea in which he has been led to believe. In fact, he considers himself to have arrived at a higher and more comprehensive plane than others. Monomaniacal, scornful of the rabble, he imagines himself charged with the unique mission of bringing history to its preordained consummation. For this person, the most dangerous type of all, Jesus and his gospel are penultimate, a means to an end, something to be used, manipulated, twisted for the purpose of justifying power and position.

V. Finally, whatever the occasions and circumstances which have led us here, and whatever the reasons given for them, what renders our situation so precarious is that it may be totally irrelevant to the Christian Church of the future. Questions of liturgy, of unity and structure, of sexuality --everything dear to the heart of American or West European Christianity, mean little or nothing to the millions to whom the church of the new century will belong. Readers of Philip Jenkins’ disturbing book, The New Christendom, are treated to the great gulf fixed between us here in the north or in Europe and those of the new world to the south or in Africa and Asia. This new world is home to base communities which involve lay participation in liturgy and church life, which talk of God the Father in ancestral contexts, speak of atonement in the language of blood sacrifice--fundamentalistic and charismatic communities which take the Bible with utter seriousness, entertain conservative attitudes toward faith and family, are at work reshaping gender roles, and reflect powerful belief in the spiritual dimension. With these new people of faith, Jenkins writes, we will be more and more out of touch, literally unable to communicate.13 Long years before Jenkins ever put pen to paper Ernst Käsemann had written:

Africa, Asia, and Latin-America will not adopt a history of dogma which took its strength from the logic of Greek antiquity, even less the historical-critical method of western scholarship, nor the forms of organization which have stood the test with us Western Christianity, however strong or weak it may ever be, is accordingly no longer the center but the periphery....14

To paraphrase Jenkins’ comment regarding Catholicism’s failure to respond to changing global realities, our Lutheran Church, itself tottering under the weight of wealth, property and privilege, has assigned all its resources to creating the minimum possible correlation between its agenda and the Gospel which people are hungry to hear. And it was all predicted. We were told that once the justification through faith on account of Jesus Christ no longer stood at center, nothing would hold, nothing at all.

But in the end, though our candlestick here may be removed, the gates of hell will not prevail against his church, a community which “demonstrates a breathtaking ability to transform weakness into strength”15


1Contemporary Worship, Services, The Holy Communion, Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1971, xvi.

2The Lutheran Book of Worship, 69; cf. Contemporary Worship, 1971, 15.

3Contemporary Worship, 1971, 17; The Lutheran Book of Worship, 70.

4“Smalcald Articles,” The Book of Concord, The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, eds. Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000, 30-1, 1.

5“Admonition Concerning The Sacrament,” Word and Sacrament IV, Luther’s Works, ed. Martin E. Lehmann, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971, 38, 107.

6Adolf Schlatter, Der Evangelist Johannes, Stuttgart: Calwer Verlag, 1948, 325.

7Vortrage, vorgelegt auf den Sitzungen der theologischen Kommission des Lutherischen Weltbundes, Berlin: Lutherisches Verlagshaus, 1957, 81.

8Michael Root, “Exceptions to the Rule of Episcopal Ordination: A Possible Way Forward?” February 16, 2000.

9Lectures on Galatians, Luther‘s Works, eds. iaroslav Pelikan and Walter A. Hansen, Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1964, Vol. 27, 37-38.

10Wilhelm Maurer, Historical Commentary on the Augsburg Confession, trans. H. George Anderson, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986.

11“Official Common Statement“ by the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church and Annex, 1998, 1.

12Cf. iorg Baur, “Einig in der I-lauptsache?” Frei durch Rechtfertigung, Vorträge anlslich der römisch­katholischllutherischen “Gemeinsamen Erklung,” Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1997, 66, 70.

13Robert Conquest, Reflections On A Ravaged Century, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000.

14Philip Jenkins, The New Christendom, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002, 66, 69, 75, 116, 119, 128, 132, 137, 160, 192, 194, etc.

15Ernst Käsemann, Evangelischer Wahrheit in den Umbruchen christlicher Theologie, 261.

16Ibid. 220.