ELCA Has Broken

—the Covenant

by The Rev. Cn. David L. Veal (Past Vice President & Newsletter Editor, Diocese of Northwest Texas Associate Ecumenical Officer, EDEIO)

November 11, 2001

Viewpoint, The Living Church, November 11, 2001, p. 27

The Churchwide Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) has caused a bit of a stir among Episcopalians by unilaterally revising our document of full communion, Called to Common Mission.

Personally, I see no serious problem with the substance of what the Lutherans have done. It is not something new and unheard of for persons not in episcopal orders to be delegated the authority, in special situations, to perform episcopal functions. There are countless examples in the history of catholic and orthodox practice of deans, abbots, archdeacons, and even parish priests who have been authorized, to perform confirmations, ordinations, and other sacerdotal functions that are clearly the bishop’s prerogative. This is not the same as presbyters ordaining presbyters.

Perhaps one should mention at this point that our presbyters are ordained by presbyters, but with the bishop presiding (BCP p.533). The ELCA decision to allow a bishop to authorize a presbyter to represent him or her and preside at a particular ordination is by no means a breach of our own Lambeth Quadrilateral injuction to preserve the “historic episcopate, locally adapted in the methods of its administration...” For us to reject the substance of the ELCA action would be to demand of them more than our own Anglican guidelines demand. We must presume that they are serious when they say they are legislating for exceptional cases and not for the rule, regula.

But this action by the ELCA forbodes ill for the future of our relationship with Lutherans unless some strong, corrective measures are taken. Let’s review the bidding. The Concordat of Agreement was the result of many years of careful work and preparation by both Lutheran and Episcopal leaders, theologians and bishops. We passed it but the ELCA rejected it. Called to Common Mission was entirely the work of an ELCA committee. We were only invited to send observers and advisors to assist them in the writing of the document. This was a strange way indeed to prepare a document that would purport to define a relationship between two sovereign bodies. The ELCA approved CCM and passed it on to us as a fait accompli, and we adopted it exactly as it had been written.

Now the Lutherans have presumed to unilaterally revise this covenant to pacify a dissident minority in their ranks. They have done so over the strong objection of our Presiding Bishop and our office of Ecumenical Relations. What they have done flies in the face of the interpretation of CCM authored by our House of Bishops and approved by General Convention resolution. It even contradicts the ELCA bishops’ Tucson Resolution. If this matter was so essential to Lutheran ecclesiology, why did they not include it when they wrote CCM and asked us to suspend a two-millennia old tradition and a three-century-old ordinal for the sake of full communion with them?

They have broken the covenant they wrote. They have not collaborated with us in this. They have presumed that they have full control of the CCM and of our relationship. We can take it their way or leave it. One would have thought that, if they were truly interested in a relationship of mutual respect and cooperation, they would have asked us to go back to the drawing board with them and revise the covenant in a way that would be satisfactory to both parties. This does not seem to have occurred to them. They have not taken this covenant as seriously as they have expected us to take it.

A friend must bear a friend’s infirmities, and if we are to be sisters and brothers to the Lutherans, as I believe God wills, we must be sensitive to their pain and difficulties. CCM, even though Lutherans wrote it, has raised some issues that are serious to them and still quite unresolved. Our leaders have tired to be a non-anxious presence with them and not to interfere with their internal quarrels.

Lutherans are heirs of a very authoritarian tradition. The ELCA is young and very new at the business of ecumenism. They are earnest but unseasoned. They are still struggling with who they are. But, in fact, is that not always true of all the branches of Christ’s body?

We will, of course, forgive their adolescent and self-centered behavior, but we should not do so without receiving an apology and some assurance that arrogance and high-handedness will not become characteristic of their behavior toward us. A newly married couple comes to mind, when one of the partners is too wrapped up in his/her own pursuits and interests to give proper attention to the spouse and to truly commit the energy necessary to cultivate and nurture a strong and wholesome relationship. If we truly honor our relationship with these Lutherans, and if we want this relationship to have a healthy future, we will not accept their self-centeredness and insensitivity toward us. They must not be allowed to take us for granted. At the very least, our Executive Council should suspend the implementation of CCM until the General Convention has had an opportunity to consider the actions of the ELCA. The ELCA must not be allowed to continue to imagine that they are in control of this relationship and we are simply the fortunate recipients of their casual magnanimity. In the meantime, we need to review what each of us is willing to invest in this relationship. So far it appears that we are the only ones who are offering a sacrifice.

The Rev. David L. Veal recently retired as canon to the ordinary of the Diocese of Northwest Texas. He lives in Lubbock, Texas. Reprinted with permission of the Living Church magazine.