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Viewpoint—Better together than apart

by Michael Root (Professor of Systematic Theology, Trinity Lutheran Seminary, Columbus, Ohio)

June 18, 2000

From The Living Church, a weekly Episcopal periodical, June 18, 2000, p. 11. This article sparked an ongoing conversation between Michael Root and Tim Huffman occurring largely on Doug LeBlanc and Deirdre Duncan's listserv in June 2000.This was the first piece published.  The second piece, "Lutheran disinformation" was written by uffman and published on LeBlanc/Duncan on June 23, 2000. The third piece, "Response to Tim Huffman" is by Root and was published on LeBlanc/Duncan on June 28, 2000. The fourth piece is "Lutheran disinformation continues" is by Huffman and was published on LeBlanc/Duncan on July 1, 2000.

photo of Dr. Michael RootWhy should the Episcopal Church adopt Called to Common Mission (CCM), the revision of the earlier Episcopal-Lutheran Concordat of Agreement? At one level, the answer is simple: CCM furthers the visible unity of the church in a way that accords with both Anglican and Lutheran theological convictions. But questions are raised: Haven't the Lutherans distorted the earlier agreement and are they so internally divided they cannot be a reliable ecumenical partner? As a Lutheran who has been closely involved in the revision of CCM and the debate surrounding it. I want to answer these questions.

Has the earlier agreement been fundamentally changed? No. The agreement at the core of the Concordat remains untouched. On the basis of a shared understanding of the gospel and of the apostolicity of the church, the two churches "now make the following commitment to share an episcopal succession that is both evangelical and historic. They promise to include regularly one or more bishops of the other church to participate in the laying-on-of-hands at the ordinations/installations of their own bishops as a sign, though not a guarantee, of the unity and apostolic continuity of the whole church." The revision that produced CCM met a variety of detailed objections without altering the essential theological structure of the Concordat. Procedures have been streamlined, e.g., fewer bishops from each church will need to be at each ordination or installation of a bishop. Ambiguities have not been clarified, e.g., a difficult sentence on three-fold ministry has been rewritten to make clear what members of the dialogue have insisted was always the case, namely, that the ELCA is not committing itself in this proposal to an ordained diaconate.

The crucial expectations of each church, however, are still met. The Episcopal Church will recognize in word and deed the existing ordained ministries of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and the ELCA commits itself "to enter the ministry of the historic episcopate." These two actions together constitute an ecumenical breakthrough. The Episcopal Church took a major step two years ago in affirming the Concordat, and now the ELCA has become the first Protestant church in American history to vote to enter episcopal succession. It has done so because of its dialogue with the Episcopal Church. It would be tragic if this breakthrough were now to fail on the Episcopal side.

The possibilities of Lutheran-Episcopal communion are significant. These include specific projects of cooperation in many places, but they go beyond that. Lutherans and Episcopalians should together explore the catholic and evangelical center of the faith. Both traditions underwent the Reformation of the 16th century, even if in different ways, and each sought during that Reformation to preserve as much as possible of the common tradition of the Western church. Together, Lutherans and Anglicans represent what an American Lutheran of the 19th century called the "conservative Reformation." Such a catholic and evangelical vision of the faith has much to offer contemporary America. The peculiar possibilities presented to our churches today can better be met together than apart. What continues to make us different, e.g., the difference in how we assess the importance of episcopal succession for the communion of the church, need not undermine our communion with each other. We can each learn from the other, while preserving our relative distinctiveness. If the ecumenical movement is to make progress toward that greater unity we pray for, it will require a network of new relations of communion.

But is the ELCA a dependable partner? The ELCA has taken CCM with great seriousness and debated it vehemently. Vigorous theological debate has been a part of the Lutheran tradition beginning with Martin Luther, and too often it has been polemical. The opposition to CCM has been well funded and technologically savvy. But opponents have never been able to sway more than about one third of the church. In both 1997 and 1999 about two-thirds of the ELCA Churchwide Assembly voted for the proposal. Once in place, a two-thirds majority would now be needed to reverse this decision. The chances of such a negative super majority forming are slim.

But what about the continuing opposition among some Lutherans? It certainly exists, although its size is difficult to estimate from the noise it puts forth. Nevertheless, it has repeatedly shown itself to be a minority and seems to be increasingly regional in nature. The debate in the ELCA over CCM has become the escape valve for various pre-existing tensions. The Episcopal Church is also no stranger to internal argument. What is important is that the leadership of the ELCA, the bishops and the Church Council, have consistently reaffirmed the church's commitment to the new relation with the Episcopal Church. There is some talk of exploring the possibility of exceptions in "unusual" causes to the strict rule of episcopal ordination, but such talk has consistently been joined with the statement that such possibilities are matters for discussion in the projected Episcopal/Lutheran Joint Commission. No unilateral action of any sort is being suggested. In addition, such talk is still only talk, and this possibility has been strenuously rejected by various voices in the church. Even more importantly, the commitment of the ELCA to all bishops entering office in the future through the laying-on-of-hands in historic succession has not been questioned.

The road to the vote at next month's General Convention has had its bumps and unexpected turns. The Episcopal Church has been patient with the ELCA as it has discerned its way forward. But, to paraphrase Midge Roof of the Episcopal Church's ecumenical office, what is at stake is a relationship, not a text. We will need to live into the new relation over the coming years. Because this proposal calls for genuine change from both our churches, it is inevitably controversial. But we cannot let controversy obscure the achievement -- the first significant bridging of the episcopal/non-episcopal ecumenical divide in American religious history. This opportunity is simply too great to be thrown away.

Michael Root is professor of systematic theology at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus, Ohio. He was a member of the drafting team for CCM.