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Reformation Day letter

The following is the text of a public letter to H. George Anderson and the ELCA Church Council from the undersigned 19 individuals.

November 1, 1998

To Bishop Anderson and the Members of the ELCA Church Council,

We are asking you, as the elected representatives of the ELCA, to deliberate carefully and consider wisely the controversy which has developed and persisted in the ELCA over the proposed Episcopal/Lutheran ecumenical agreement. More than a year after the Philadelphia Assembly sent the proposal to a committee for retooling, it is clear that our church is still deeply divided on this issue, specifically by the demand that Lutherans must adopt the historic episcopate in order to seal the agreement. We have seen and experienced this widespread controversy at every level of the church: in the Lutheran theological journals, at synodical and regional gatherings, at continuing education events, on Lutheran college and seminary faculties and in local congregations.

We the undersigned are not all of one mind on the Episcopal/Lutheran ecumenical agreement. Over the past three years some of us have favored the agreement, others of us have been opposed. However, we are united in our conviction that to let the process proceed as per usual at this point would be harmful to the church. Too many of us are, sad to say, veterans of ecclesiastical wars. If we have learned one thing, it is that in church wars, there are no winners, and the biggest losers are always the laity.

Why has this issue become so divisive within the ELCA? Generally speaking, the objections to CCM fall into two categories: concerns with process and concerns with content.

I. Concerns with Process.

  1. We have heard enormous frustration expressed at every level of our church about the absence of opposition voices in the pages of The Lutheran, at synodical assemblies, at the hearings in Philadelphia, etc. The vast majority of Lutherans feel that there are two sides to every issue, that they deserve to hear both of them and that thus far they are hearing only the voice that favors adoption of CCM. We must remember that the ELCA has made no decision on this question. There is no official position. These are only proposals to the church, and it is essential that differences of opinion be heard and respected. The charter of The Lutheran is to represent the church's diversity of opinion, and the responsibility of church leadership is to foster healthy discussion, not to present only one side of proposals. The suppression of dissent in the current discussion may very well have masked the breadth and depth of discomfort within the church regarding these proposals.
  2. There is wide-spread concern that this agreement is the tip of an iceberg and lying just beneath the surface and out of sight are many undesirable structural, programmatic, theological and liturgical consequences which it will be impossible to reject once the agreement is passed. In fact, this concern is well founded. We would do well to emulate the Norwegian Lutheran Church which insisted, prior to signing Porvoo, on a precise list of the consequences of that ecumenical agreement.
  3. The question many Lutherans are asking is, "Why we are being forced to adopt the historic episcopate? Why can't we ask our Episcopalian brothers and sisters to accept our current ministry structures as valid, and why can't we do the same for them?" This is a valid question, and one which should not have been asked behind closed doors. Lutherans should publicly and clearly ask this of our Episcopal colleagues, and they should publicly and clearly answer.
  4. The five-year-long ELCA Ministry Study was a comprehensive attempt to study the nature of ministry in order to help the ELCA effectively fulfill its mission. In 1993, in response to the Study, the ELCA overwhelmingly affirmed our Church's current understanding and practice of ministry. The Churchwide Assembly specifically re-asserted the historic Lutheran position of "one indivisible office of Word and Sacrament ministry." The current proposed agreement with the demand for Lutheran adoption of the historic episcopate overturns the decisions of the ELCA Ministry Study and the 1993 Churchwide assembly without the due order and careful consideration which preceded the 1993 Assembly's decision.
  5. Called to Common Mission suffers from a major structural problem. The proposal asks the church to make two qualitatively different decisions with a single vote. The church clearly wants communion with the ECUSA; it is not clear that the ELCA wants to alter its traditional polity and structure. These two questions need to be separated and serious theological work needs to be done to decide the ecclesiological question, i.e. what is the nature of the Church and how should it be organized? There are many ways and public forums in which the ecclesiological question could be addressed throughout the ELCA. First and foremost should be the pages of The Lutheran, which could feature a series of articles, over the course of the next two years, geared toward the laity and written by teachers and leaders who are both for and against altering traditional Lutheran polity. Other options for public discussion could include invoking the old tradition of "free conferences," or having the independent journals like dialog, Lutheran Forum and Lutheran Quarterly sponsor a symposium which might culminate in a book and study guide on the topic.

II. Concerns with Content.

Essentially, ELCA ratification of the Lutheran/Episcopal accord has failed because of the inclusion of the historic episcopate in each and every version of the documents. Concerns about the historic episcopate among Lutherans fall into four categories:

  1. The "historic episcopate" is an historical fiction which cannot be clearly demonstrated from either scripture or the breadth of traditions in the early church. Lutherans understand it to be, at best, something that might be beneficial to some churches in some specific contexts, though perhaps quite inappropriate in others. Lutherans have never understood the historic episcopate to be essential for the validity of the church. Nor have Lutherans in America ever independently given serious consideration to adopting it, a choice always available to them. It is important to note that even where the historic episcopate is practiced among Lutherans, e.g. in Sweden, it has never been elevated to the same level as scripture, the two sacraments, and the two ecumenical creeds, but the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral does precisely that. This statement of Anglican theological convictions is unequivocal on this point. However, Lutherans who have the historic episcopate and Lutherans who don't have had no difficulty in mutually recognizing the validity of each others' ministries and engaging in close cooperation on many different levels. Why can't a similar arrangement be reached with the Episcopal Church, USA?
  2. To bind American Lutheranism to the historic episcopate ties our hands for the future, when our history shows that though we hold public ministry to be of the essence of the church, we have always remained committed to a flexibility in the form of that ministry. That flexibility is essential for effective mission, and there is, in fact, little evidence that the historic episcopate is a model of organization well-suited for the mission challenges of twenty-first century North America. Even if we put the best construction on the historic episcopate, that its function is to maintain order and doctrinal unity in the church, the current state of worldwide Anglicanism is surely testimony to the inability of the office to do just that. At least two bishops within Anglicanism, at present, publicly deny the historic teachings of the church and promulgate their denials through vigorous writing campaigns.
  3. The Lutheran-Episcopal ecumenical proposals communicate that there is no church without bishops. Furthermore, CCM simply presupposes, without question, that episcopal organization is the most desirable church structure for Lutherans, and that implementing it should therefore be our ultimate goal. These inferences and presuppositions are contrary to what the Lutheran Confessions teach on this matter.
  4. The significant structural implications of CCM in essence prioritize this particular ecumenical relationship above all others, including those already approved.

III. What about possible compromises?

We are aware of two categories of suggested compromises that you may be asked to deliberate uon.

  1. The first category of compromises pertains to the actual concept of historic episcopate. Some are suggesting that a change of name, from "Historical Episcopate" to "Evangelical Episcopate," would solve the problem, others that receiving the historic episcopate from Swedish Lutherans rather than Episcopalians would do the same. Both "solutions" miss the point of the theological objections: that adoption of the historic episcopate (which demands a significant alteration of Lutheran structures and understandings of ministry) is still required for an agreement with the ECUSA. In other words, the issue is not what we call it, or where we get it from, but the fact that we must adopt it.
  2. The second category of compromises has to do with the concept of "right of conscience." Some are suggesting that Lutheran pastors or bishops who are opposed to the historic episcopate be granted the right of conscience to refuse it. Of course, only seminarians who are about to be ordained will need to exercise the right of conscience. But the gross power inequity which exists between seminarians seeking a first call and their bishops and synodical committees calls into serious question the viability of a "right of conscience" clause.

IV. Viable Solutions

Where do we go from here? Is there a way to turn this from a lose/lose to a win/win situation? We believe there is. Given the enormous controversy surrounding this issue, we believe that it would be a grave mistake to transmit Called to Common Mission to the church at this time. However, there is another possibility.

The current Interim Sharing documents that bind Lutherans and Episcopalians in common ministry do not demand that Lutherans adopt the historic episcopate. Yet they do witness to a mutual respect for each others structures and practices of ministry. Much cooperation and mission has occurred on the basis of that mutual respect and there is no reason that this cannot continue. Many Lutheran churches are in a covenantal relationship with Episcopal churches and have discovered not only their common faith, but ways to proceed with local mission and outreach apart from further unification. Since we have achieved such a significant level of unity apart from the historic episcopate, we can and should trust that the Spirit of God will yet disclose to us ways to proceed without forcing the issue at this time. We believe that the vast majority of Lutherans and Episcopalians in this country would immediately warm to such a compromise: an agreement to recognize that our respective understandings of ministry define us but do not divide us.

Of course, there may be some Episcopalians who simply cannot agree to such a compromise, given their self-understanding. We believe that those Episcopalians who cannot affirm the present validity of Lutheran structures of ministry must be granted the right of conscience to refuse cooperation with us. We Lutherans must respect that right of conscience and pray for the day when full, mutual and unqualified affirmation of each other's historic ministry traditions is possible.


Rev. Mark Chavez, Peace Lutheran Church, Glen Burnie, Maryland

Rev. Dr. Walter Bouzard, Professor of Old Testament, Wartburg College

Rev. Lowell O. Erdahl, former bishop, St. Paul Area Synod, ELCA

Rev. Dr. Mark Granquist, Associate Professor of Church History, St. Olaf College

Rev. Dr. Tim Huffman, Professor of Christian Missions, Trinity Lutheran Seminary

Rev. Dr. Walter Huffman, Professor of Liturgy and Worship, Trinity Lutheran Seminary

Dr. Cynthia Jurisson, Associate Professor of Church History, Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago

Rev. John M. Koehnlein, St. John Lutheran Church, Westminster, Maryland

Rev. John G. Lynch, Magothy-Cheslea Community Lutheran Church, Pasadena, Maryland

Rev. Dr. Robert J. Marshall, former president of the Lutheran Church in America, and Senior Scholar in Residence at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago

Rev. Dr. Roland D. Martinson, Professor of Pastoral Care and Counseling, Luther Theological Seminary

Rev. Dr. Edward K. Perry, former bishop of the Upstate New York Synod of the ELCA

Rev. Dr. Ted Peters, Professor of Systematic Theology, Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, editor of dialog

Rev. Dr. Jay Rochelle, St. Timothy Lutheran Church, Allentown, Pennsylvania

Rev. Dr. Paul Rorem, Professor of Medieval Church History, Princeton Theological Seminary, and Editor of Lutheran Quarterly

Rev. Kenneth Sauer, former bishop of the Southern Ohio Synod, ELCA

Rev. Dr. Lee E. Snook, Professor of Systematic Theology, Luther Seminary

Rev. Clarence Solberg, former bishop of the North Pacific District of the American Lutheran Church

Rev. Kathy Vitalis, Hope Lutheran Church, Fargo, North Dakota