What is the struggle about

—in the ELCA over the Lutheran-Episcopal agreement?

by Marc Kolden (Professor, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN)

April 12, 2000

Some background

The ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) has been working on building closer relationships with other Christian churches since it came into existence by merger in 1988.  In 1997 the ELCA agreed to "full communion" with the Presbyterians, the Reformed Church of America, and the United Church of Christ.  In 1999 we voted for full communion with the Moravian Church.  While there was some debate about aspects of these proposals it hasn't amounted to much.

The situation with the proposal for full communion with the Episcopal Church is quite different, however.  In 1997 it fell six votes short of the required two-thirds majority at the ELCA churchwide assembly.  Leaders were shocked and it was decided to try again in 1999.  A new proposal was written, titled "Called to Common Mission" (CCM).  Opponents of the first proposal objected to CCM also, and on the same grounds, because it seemed to change the basis for divine authority in the church by adding a requirement that Lutherans must adopt the "historic episcopate."  (The Greek word episcopos means "bishop."  The "historic episcopate" is the Episcopal system of governance by bishops who are claimed to be in historic succession from the earliest days of Christianity.)  Despite continued opposition, the 1999 churchwide assembly passed the proposal, exceeding the required two-thirds majority by 27 votes (out of over 1,000).  ELCA leaders made an extremely strong effort during the final weeks and at the assembly itself in order to achieve passage by what has been called a "manufactured majority."

Then what happened?

Since then the opposition hasn't subsided; instead, it has increased.  A coalition of opponents within the ELCA, called the "WordAlone Network," from all over the United States, has sponsored a series of more than sixty regional gatherings in twenty-five states during the past fall and winter.  On March 26-29, 2000, WordAlone held its national constituting convention to organize opposition in more effective ways.  Over 1,000 persons were registered and another 400-500 people were in attendance at least part of the time.

Participants in the WordAlone Network include both individuals and congregations.  Their purpose is to get the ELCA to modify or overturn the requirement in CCM that all ELCA bishops must be installed into the historic episcopate (so as to be interchangeable with Episcopal bishops) and that all new ELCA pastors must be ordained by bishops.  This struggle, it should be noted, is not between Lutherans and Episcopalians; rather, it is a disagreement among Lutherans as to how we can relate to other church bodies without losing our own Lutheran understanding of what it means to be the church.

Why is this such a problem?

Since the ELCA already has bishops, why is this new arrangement such a problem?  vAs opponents see it, the Episcopal Church has a quite different understanding of bishops than we have.  Episcopalians say that bishops in historic succession are necessary for the unity of the church as well as for the ordination of pastors.  CCM requires that the ELCA adopt the Episcopal Church's practice.  Lutherans, on the other hand, on the basis of our Confessions of Faith, have always taught that the only thing (theologically) necessary for the church to be the church and for church unity is agreement on the gospel and the sacraments.  These "means of grace" are believed to be the only sources of divine authority in the church.  Lutherans have held that other things, such as particular forms of worship, or organization, or ordination, are not instituted by God but are created by human beings.  Therefore, they must not be made theologically necessary but can be arranged freely in whatever ways best serve the mission of the gospel in various times and places.  In this sense, they can be practically necessary but not in the sense of being the only way that something must be done by everyone in every time and place.  Such is not the case with the Episcopal Church's understanding of the historic episcopate.

Opponents are convinced that CCM's provisions undermine the Confessional basis of our church's teaching and practice.  Putting bishops in a much more prominent position threatens to move the central focus of God's saving activity away from the congregation gathered around the means of grace to the synod (or diocese) gathered around the bishop.  Also, it makes distinctions between what Lutherans have said is the one office (responsibility) of public ministry:  the proclamation and the sacraments.  (Our present bishops are believed to be pastors like any others, only with different responsibilities-not part of a separate or higher order.)

What is the outlook now?

Despite the extent of the protests over the past months ELCA national leaders have made no effort to modify any aspects of CCM.  There was an unofficial meeting in Milwaukee in mid-February that sought to find some way beyond this impasse.  It involved several bishops who support CCM but whose synods have a lot of opposition to CCM plus others from both sides.  This group came up with a proposal called the "Common Ground Resolution" (CGR), which made several suggestions to allow for the ELCA to make exceptions for bishops and pastors not to be part of the historic episcopate system.  This proposal was been sent to the Conference of 65 ELCA Bishops, the ELCA Church Council, and the WordAlone Network.  The Conference of Bishops took no action on the CGR at its meeting in early March, although it did issue a pastoral letter calling for a slight bit of flexibility in the implementation of CCM.  At its convention WordAlone endorsed the CGR and forwarded its resolution to the ELCA Church Council.  At the Council meeting in early April the CGR was ignored, as were the pleas of many moderate bishops to find a way to resolve the current divisions.  Led by ELCA Presiding Bishop H. George Anderson, the Council seemed resolute in not allowing for any compromise.

The Episcopal Church still has to vote on CCM during its convention in the summer of 2000, so until they approve it (which is likely) nothing is supposed to be implemented.  (The date of January 1, 2001, is now the date at which implementation is set to begin.)  In the meantime the WordAlone Network and other opponents are exploring various means of protest and resistance, including education, passing resolutions in synods, trying to elect anti-CCM delegates to the 2001 ELCA assembly, seeking to elect synod bishops who will refuse to be part of the historic episcopate, identifying possible candidates for the next ELCA presiding bishop, withholding benevolence contributions, participating in irregular ordinations, etc.

Who are the members of WordAlone?

WordAlone is led by a twelve-member board of directors, elected at its national convention.  The chair of the board is Pastor Roger Eigenfeld of St. Andrew's Lutheran Church in Mahtomedi, MN.  Other board members include former MN governor Al Quie, seminary professors Tim Huffman (Trinity), Gracia Grindal and Michael Rogness (Luther), and other pastors and lay persons from many different parts of the U.S. Others who have been involved in this effort include former ALC Presiding Bishop David Preus, former LCA president Robert Marshall, Eastern North Dakota Bishop Rick Foss, and East-Central Wisconsin Bishop John Beem as well as seminary professors from Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus, Pacific Lutheran Seminary in Berkeley, the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago, and Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN.

A number of synods took votes against CCM prior to the 1999 churchwide assembly; these included the Minneapolis and St. Paul Area Synods as well as SW MN, NW MN, NE MN, Eastern and Western ND, SD, MT, East Central and NW WI, NW WA, and several others.  There are active pockets of opposition also in Florida, Iowa, Nebraska, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Southern California, Virginia, and elsewhere.

The total number of those involved in WordAlone is difficult to determine at this point.  At the over sixty regional meetings held this past January and February there were between 3,000 and 4,000 people in attendance, although if the congregations from which these people came are counted the number would be far larger.  For example, just five Twin Cities congregations whose senior pastors are leaders in WordAlone (Zion, Anoka; Calvary, Golden Valley; St.Andrew's, Mahtomedi; Abiding Savior, Mounds View; and Roseville Lutheran in Roseville) have nearly 30,000 members between them.  Congregations that join WordAlone still remain members of the ELCA, it should be noted.

Further information is available from the WordAlone website at www.WordAlone.org or by calling St. Andrew's Lutheran Church in Mahtomedi, MN at 651-762-9104.  The website is updated regularly and contains both news items and resources for congregations.

What will happen next?

No one knows what will happen next.  Much depends on whether or not ELCA leaders seek to achieve some sort of compromise on the mandated imposition of the historic episcopate.  WordAlone is considering various ways of continuing its opposition as well as what might happen if no resolution can be found and there is a split in the ELCA.  (A split is not as unlikely as it might seem.  ELCA Presiding Bishop Anderson has said that people who do not want to go along with CCM should consider finding another church body.  This includes congregations, pastors, and seminarians.)  WordAlone is looking at legal and financial implications and strategies for pastors and congregations considering leaving the ELCA.  It will also continue to develop a parallel network of congregations within the ELCA that might organize alternative youth and evangelism events, publish curriculum materials for Sunday School and confirmation, prepare and call pastors, support missionaries, etc.  It will also examine the matter of creating a separate church body, in case that should become necessary, although its primary purpose is to stay in the ELCA and work for change.

In the short term starting another church body may not be a very likely possibility, but if synods begin to elect bishops who refuse the historic episcopate and congregations start calling and ordaining pastors using alternative structures to that of synod bishops things could change quickly.  Already in March the Eastern North Dakota Synod adopted (with an 88% majority) a resolution to allow its bishop, pastors, and congregations to have a choice of either being part of the historic episcopate or not.  The ELCA Church Council has responded that synods may not take actions which are opposed to the ELCA constitution, but this will not prevent other synods from voting this spring to forbid their bishops to be part of the historic episcopate.  Altogether, nearly twenty synod assemblies will have some sort of protest resolutions against CCM on their agendas.

How did things get so bad?

Since the newly merged ELCA began in 1988 there have been all the usual difficulties of putting together church bodies with different traditions and histories.  These included large financial shortfalls at first, poorly planned organizational structures that had to be changed, and the fact that the ELCA was a much larger church body than any of the three predecessor church bodies and things just didn't work in the same way.  (It might be observed in light of the current conflict that the ELCA constitution doesn't have a very good system of checks and balances, since neither congregations nor synods seem to be able to influence the churchwide decisions if the presiding bishop or the secretary decides to ignore them.)

On top of this there were several serious conflicts resulting from controversial national proposals about ecumenical policies, human sexuality, forms of official ministry, abortion, economics, and several other areas that have put additional strains on a still fragile new church body.  In any merger it takes time to build trust and loyalty beyond the congregational level.  If this has not been accomplished before a serious problem arises it becomes difficult to hold the new organization together.  That is why the present controversy over CCM is so volatile and dangerous.

Failure is not inevitable.  If wise heads prevail on both sides there could be some creative compromises and changes that would help us all go forward together.  It won't be easy, however.  So far, national leaders and most synod bishops appear to be unwilling to give any ground.  They are pushing full-speed ahead hoping to keep things together until the Episcopal Church has voted.  But even this has become more problematic, since the version of CCM on which the Episcopalians will vote does not include the ELCA Bishops' Interpretation that was included as an amendment to CCM by the 1999 ELCA churchwide assembly.  (This may be the occasion for a legal challenge.)  In fact, the Episcopal Church's House of Bishops has issued its own interpretation of controversial aspects of CCM-and it is in direct opposition to many of the points in the ELCA Bishops' Interpretation.

If opponents manage to pass anti-CCM resolutions in nearly one-third of the ELCA synods this spring there could be a crisis that will demand some new initiatives from ELCA leaders.  On the other hand, if opposition fizzles out (which seems unlikely) some congregations will leave the ELCA and others will limit their synod participation and support.  In that case, a weakened ELCA would continue much as it is-at least until the next major controversy.  The WordAlone organization is not seeking a split, but because the divisive issue is a matter of confessional and theological principle it will not back down either.

[Marc Kolden, who wrote this statement, is an ELCA pastor and professor at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN.  He has been writing against CCM and its predecessor documents for several years.  He participated in the Milwaukee meeting that drafted the Common Ground Resolution as a possible way beyond the present impasse.]