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What makes

—an ecumenical agreement authoritative?

The Rev. Karen Bloomquist (Director, Department for Theology & Studies, Lutheran World Federation)

News: July 7, 2000

An American Lutheran perspective

This paper was originally presented at the Summer Seminar of the Institute for Ecumenical Research, Strasbourg, July 7, 2000. For WordAlone responses, see: Ostercamp and Rogness.


It is not surprising that the topic of authority is being addressed in this seminar, given that the crisis of authority is pervasive in especially Western societies. This crisis has arisen, in part, because the Constantinian era, with its unquestioned models of ecclesial authority has long ended. Due to Enlightenment and other influences since then, hierarchical models of authority tend to be suspected, resisted, dismissed. A resulting democractic, more egalitarian social order, tends to grant little room for traditional authority; instead, there is disdain for anyone who would presume to be authoritative over what has been dubbed by one U.S. author as "the masterless self" (Wilfred M. McClay, The Masterless Self [Chapel Hill: Univ. of N. Carolina, 1996]).

The paradigm of "authority over" has been resoundingly critiqued from many perspectives and in relation to many arenas of life. But our focus here is on how this is critique is present in the ethos of the church in American society, especially when the authority of ecumenical agreements related to the authority of the historic espiscopate is at stake. A case in point is the "Called to Common Mission" agreement between the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and the Episcopal Church, U.S.A. When both of these aspects of authority come together, as they do in this case, they stir up deep, visceral feelings in many and can result in irrational waves of reaction, which no amount of theological debate or doctrinal clarification can seem to placate. In fact, theological rebuttals are often made in ways that only escalate the tensions, without pausing first to reflect on what is actually driving such impassioned opposition. Although I share the view that opposition to this agreement often reflects misunderstandings of what is proposed, as well as a truncated sense of what it means to be the Church, and needs to be challenged on that basis, that is not my primary purpose here. Instead, I will be using this example to raise a more general challenge for theological work today - regarding its presuppositions, approach, and to what it needs to give attention.

Authority in society and church

Authority within the church has tended to mirror the authority systems within society. Churches that are most reflective of a society's authority patterns have tended to be the ones that flourish within that society. For example, more democratic forms of ecclesial authority have tended to prevail in more democratic societies. This underlies the proliferation of so many autonomous, congregationally-centered churches that are indigenous to the U.S., and has in turn affected the polity and self-understandings of more mainline U.S. churches whose roots are in Europe.

Three themes that permeate North American society deeply affect many people's sense of what it means to be the church. Much has been written about the pervasive theme of individualism, which for our purpose here is focused on the masterless self that resists any imposition of authority. The strain of localism is manifest in the reoccurring theme that the local congregation is the operational equivalent of the church. The strong strain of voluntarism in American church life means that one chooses which church to belong to, amid a wide array of choices in most communities, and thus one can easily go elsewhere if one does not agree with or feel comfortable with the stances taken by that church or religion.

When there are major disjunctions between what a given ecclesial authority teaches and what people believe in their lives to be authoritative, the church's authority tends to be discounted in significant ways. Thus, the authority of what the Roman Catholic Church has to say on economic justice carries authority in U.S. society in ways that its teaching authority regarding birth control tends to be ignored, even by the most devout Catholics.

In mainline Protestant churches, most embodiers of ecclesial authority tend to be given little credance; figures of presumed authority tend to be shot down. Regardless of how carefully they have sought to hear and respond to different voices or sensitivities in arriving at a position, the same allegations tend to be heard again and again: Those who have formulated a given document, no matter how well-grounded it may be theologically, are accused of being captive to certain political forces in the church, in a top-down and coercive way, laying their position on the rest of "us", thereby overlooking or dismissing the validity of any theological arguments that may be presented.

For example, at the inception of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, we intentionally set up an extensive participatory, deliberative process for arriving at official policy positions (social statements) on social ethical issues. ("Policies and Procedures*."), based on theological premises of how the Holy Spirit is involved in discernment in community. This process involves task forces representing a variety of areas of expertise and experience, listening posts around the country, researching, drafting and sending to all congregations first a study document and later a first draft of a statement for them to study, discuss, and respond to, efforts to assess and respond (when appropriate) to the critiques and suggestions made, revising the statement in light of such, and further extensive deliberations prior to the eventual adoption by the highest legislative authority, namely, the churchwide assembly. Still we heard the complaint, especially from those who disagreed with the position that was eventually adopted, "Who do they claim to be, presuming to speak for us?" If U.S. Lutherans don't agree with a stance taken, some are likely to go back and raise questions about who it is that has formulated a position that claims in some sense to be authoritative. How "representative" and fair are they? Are they enough like us for us to trust them? Does what they say or stand for "ring true" to us? Is it congruent with our view or interpretation of reality, with our experience? If we don't agree, efforts are made, sometimes at great lengths, to portray those who have formulated a position as being "other from us" in significant ways. "Elites," "bureaucrats," or captive to some "ism" are some of the more politely expressed accusations.

Often this kind of charge is raised against those who served on a task force or dialogue commission, and who have arrived at or formulated a proposed position. On the one hand, they may be suspected of not having the appropriate credentials or expertise, and on the other hand, they may be suspected of exercising such in ways that violate the sensitivities of "the common ordinary folks" in the church, including in attempting to persuade the membership of the theological soundness of what is proposed. How dare they presume to tell us what to think! The fear is that teachings and practices alien to "us" will be imposed on us. Authority is seen as that which goes against our will, or against our accustomed way of seeing or doing things.

Further questions are raised about the authority of whoever is responsible for adopting a proposed agreement. Here the typical allegation is that whatever body carries this authority (e.g., a churchwide assembly) is not representative, or does not speak for "us" who disagree with its conclusions. Those who are a part of such a decision-making body, in turn, expect that they themselves will be able to affect, change, revise, "get their finger prints" on the proposed document before it is adopted. This has become apart of the expectation and practice of how an ELCA churchwide assembly acts in relation to the adoption of a social statement, so that before it is adopted it begins to feel like "their" document. It is a participatory aspect of how such documents become authoritative. But the nature of the Concordat, as a pre-negotiated agreement with the Episcopal Church, was such that no changes were permitted when it was considered at the 1997 Churchwide Assembly of the ELCA, to the dismay of many. The only options were "yes" or "no." This went against an emerging ethos or way of doing things as a church, which as some commented to me at the time, may explain in part why the Concordat was defeated. It may also suggest the need for some significant rethinking of how we arrive at ecumenical agreements, if they are to be truly authoritative in our time. What underlies these actions?

These and other factors at play in American society are illustrated in some of the continuing reactions to the approval at the 1999 ELCA Churchwide Assembly, by over a 2/3 majority vote, of the "Called to Common Mission" agreement with the Episcopal Church USA. All the above mentioned negative associations with authority are compounded when the issue at stake is historic episcopacy, which clearly is the matter of contention in thiscase. In analyzing papers from spokespersons for the WordAlone movement that has been organized to oppose the "Called to Common Mission," one finds the following allegations regarding an that the ELCA has already officially approved. Many of these are verbatim allegations made by seminary professors, who charge that the agreement:

  • departs from the history of US Lutheran practice regarding ordination of pastors and installations of bishops - makes the structure of historic episcopacy a requirement for full communion
  • intensifies the perception of the church as a Christian caste system
  • is a top down initiative, imposed through managed coercion on the membership
  • goes against the societal emphasis on individual authority and responsibility - threatens the freedom of the Gospel and of the conscience
  • a confessional Lutheran church stands open to its ecumenical neighbor even while challenging every attempt to subordinate the word to hierachies and structures
  • the confessions are like the Declaration of Independence.

Regarding the approval of CCM, it is alleged that: - the ELCA has developed and been maintained on a paradign of coercion - "having been excluded from the processes and overpowered in assemblies, those of us who don't like it are told we can leave" - "A whole church culture, an entire way of being the people of God has been brought under attack, ironically in the name of an ecumenism that seeks the larger unity of the church."

What fuels such charges, many of them distortions of the actual facts? Some (e.g., Lutheran Forum) have characterized this WordAlone movement as being "populist, pietist, and pragmatist" in its basic commitments. In this sense, it reflects how deeply its followers are enculturated into these distinctive strains of the American ethos. These strains in turn result in a determination to stand over and against hierarchical class and ecclesial structures that Americans still associate with Europe and thus seek to distance themselves from.

Furthermore, the basic dynamic of class is latent in how, in many U.S. communities, Lutherans still view Episcopalians. Because Americans like to view their society as "classless," the insidious aspects of class, which are usually not openly addressed, continue to fester beneath the surface. The Episcopal Church has long been perceived as the church of the "ruling class" in America society. This is reflected in how.a disproportionate number of leaders in government and other highly visible positions - especially in the national arena - have been Episcopalian, especially when compared to the very low percentage who have been Lutheran. Episcopalians have long been viewed as the shapers of the nation, of high culture, and of prestigious educational institutions. No other church body is so strongly associated as being "of the establishment." In contrast, it is only during the past half century that Lutheranism in America has moved beyond its immigrant self-image. Until fairly recently it has been heavily working class or agrarian in its membership (and still is in some parts of the country).

The stereotypical demeanor of Episcopalian priests, in contrast to Lutheran pastors, can be detected in many communities, as are the parts of town, and thus class location, of those who typically belong to one church or the other. These are deeply embedded in people's sense of personal and thus also ecclesial identity, especially in a society where personal preferences are a much stronger determiner of church affiliation than in most places around the world. In many communities, the current economic and social status of members of the local Lutheran and Episcopal parishes may not be that distinguishable, but the wounds of class run deep for at least a generation after one's class location may have changed. Class-influenced values, outlooks, and patterns of affiliation remain, based especially on symbolic factors.

One of the most highly symbolic factors is that of the "historic episcopate," which is made even more explicit in the very name by which the Anglican communion in the U.S. is identified - "the Episcopal Church." The actual reality of being an Episcopalian today may be, in many ways, far less hierarchical than this name commonly implies. For example, I recall hearing how when the ELCA and Episcopalian bishops came together for a joint retreat, the Lutherans were careful to show up in their clerical collars and large pectoral crosses, whereas the Episcopalians showed up in sports shirts. But regardless of the actual reality, the symbolic associations with "episcopal" still have too deep a hold on the popular imagination, especially for Lutherans of working-class roots, for it to be easily overcome through either a well-developed ecumenical document or an official churchwide assembly vote.

My point is that unless factors such as these are brought into the open, talked about, and worked through together, they will continue to fester, drive, and distort many of the theological arguments made by those who continue to oppose the agreement. To simply denounce these tendencies is to be accused of falling into the trap of being "top-down," "hierarchical," "elitist." Power struggles are likely to erupt, allegedly for the sake of ecclesial egalitarianism, usually linked somehow with the priesthood of all believers. Through such struggles, the authority of individual or congregational freedom tends to become sanctified, with an almost obsessive fear of any structures that might themselves embody ecclesial authority. A number of critiques or challenges can be raised about these tendencies - especially on theological grounds - which I will not pursue here. But unless we appreciate deeply enough how these factors are at play in the very presuppositions and methodologies by which ecumenical agreements are formulated, and seek ways to deal with the living sensitivities arising from them, ecumenical agreements in the future will be received as authoritative by a decreasing proportion of the Church, not to mention the populace in general.

Ecumenical pursuits in relation to the whole church's practices In ecumenical relations, distinctions are typically made between the processes by which an is arrived at, and the processes of reception in the life of the church.

When we speak of reception, we generally envisage either the 'yes' of acceptance or the 'no' of rejection. But does there not exist a third possibility, worse even than rejection - the deafening silence of the total indifference of the majority of the faithful? (Roger Greenacre, "Two Aspects of Reception" in Christian Authority, ed. G.R. Evans [Oxford: Clarendon, 1988], 57)

Authority, ecclesial or other, must be understood contextually - how it is experienced and lived out in a given society. These cultural sensitivities, values, perceptions must themselves be accounted for in any theological case that is to be credible or authoritativein the lives of people. This need not imply endorsement or agreement, but at least a hearing that takes these sentiments seriously enough to engage them rather than dismissing them prematurely. Through such an engagement, the formulations arrived at through ecumenicaldialogue processes might have a greater possibility of theologically responding to and transforming the feelings, fears, and parochial sensitivities in light of the wider unity of the Church. When they are not taken seriously, as spokespersons in the WordAlone movement allege, it ironically can lead to heightened dissension for the sake of the ecumenical unity.

The matter I am raising here is not only of relevance at the stage of application or reception - in fact that is far too late -- but must inform how the very theological agreement is arrived at. If a doctrinal understanding or ecumenical consensus is articulated in ways that are felt to be insensitive to these deeply lying historical, cultural, socio-psychological factors at stake, it will hardly be received as or be able to function in any genuinely authoritative way in the life of the church. It is likely to remain only a lofty abstraction to which most people will hardly pay attention, unless of course it touches a highly symbolic nerve, as the historic episcopate has done in the case cited here. For an ecumenical agreement to be authoritative in our day, it must embody an expanded sense of authority. Rather than attached to something given, handed down, or imposed, something becomes authoritative as it is tested and lived out in community with one another - as it rings true to people's actual experience. This engagement can involve critique and challenge, not only affirmation of that experience, but through such engagement, its living authority begins to emerge.

The social, cultural, historical matrix of practices are the context within which any authority would presume to function. Practices refer to the shared activities that address fundamental human needs and that, woven together, form a way of life (Dorothy C. Bass, ed., Practicing Our Faith [San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1997], 4-5). In the case of practices, a kind of theological wisdom is expressed through the rites of daily living. Christian practices are things Christians do together over time in response to and in the light of God's active presence for the life of the world, the various activities that together compose a way of life, and that shape communities over the years.

This operational, lived reality of faith in people's everyday life, and the assumptions underlying such, often is in tension with the official theology or teachings of the church. A case in point was evident at the recent LWF Council meeting, when an African Lutheran bishop described why his church had opposed the Joint Declaration on Justification, namely, because of the popular Catholic practice of praying to Mary and the saints. Although in a previous Lutheran - Roman Catholic dialogue the Roman Catholics gave this less authority than is commonly assumed, the fact that in popular piety and devotion this is what still is felt to distinguish Catholics from Protestants, and which the Joint Declaration did not itself address, had kept the Declaration from becoming authoritative in this particular African context. This might seem like an idiosyncratic example, but unless factors such as these are somehow taken into account, regardless of their incongruence with church teachings, any attempts to be authoritative will tend to be experienced as imposed, alien, and thus resisted. This is especially so if the net result is experienced as going against the grain of people's common sense of what it means to be members of one church in distinction from another.

Taking this popular, operational level more seriously does not necessarily put a hamper on the pursuit of fuller ecumenical unity; in fact, it can expedite it. It is the lived experience of Lutherans with Roman Catholics, in the cases of intermarriage as well as struggles for economic and political justice, that has raised and pushed certain ecumenical questions to the fore. Just after returning from the signing of the Joint Declaration, I received an e-mail message from a former roommate, who eagerly hoped that this might finally lead to the sharing of the Eucharist, thirty years after her wedding in which she and her husband had to receive the Sacrament separately from her Lutheran pastor and his Catholic priest. Or take the example of the 1998 declaration of a bilateral seminar of Brazilian Lutheran and Catholic theologians: In our country, so marked by poverty and by the social exclusion of the majority of the people, the Eucharist ought to be, also a sign of the permanent effort of the churches to recover human dignity and to promote citizenship*. the fact that the Eucharist is a gift and sign of reconciliation, brings us to cry out for full communion between our churches. The Holy Supper is at the same time the source, the expression, a necessity for, and an eschatological goal of unity. In this process of growing together, we emphasize the steps that we have already obtained, as well as some concrete forms of Eucharistic Hospitality.

These are not isolated examples but part of a chorus of millions of voices, deeply rooted in the experience of living together, that pushes and challenges the pursuit of ecumenical unity, not primarily on the basis of doctrinal agreement, but shared practices of living out the faith in daily life, suggesting that doctrinal consensus - even on such neuralgic issues as the Ministry -- may need to follow life practices, in all their immediacy and urgency, rather than the other way around.

Reconceiving authority

Authority theologically understand is rooted in the critical ultimacy of God's authority, in relation to which all human assumption of authority tends to become immodest (Douglas John Hall, Thinking the Faith (Augsburg Fortress, 1989), 452). Authority must never become an end in itself but is a means a facilitating the freedom of divine love in the world (447). The mystery of divine authority is that of a God who loves, who interacts with, who is in service of the beloved, such that the context will affect how authority functions.

Scripture becomes authoritative as it is communicated, received, believed. The Word become authoritative - becomes the living Word of God for us - as it intersects with and transforms our experience, and becomes truth for us. Its authority arises out of the encounter between the text and the context. Thus the situation of the hearing community is central to Luther's notion of biblical authority; the context within which it is heard and experienced, becomes a living God-revealing reality, through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Similarly, contextuality is a requirement for ecumenical theology today. It is not only history - or "time" - that is important, as emphasized in ecumenical dialogues that seek to overcome problematic understandings that have changed over time. But "place" or context is also crucial for authentic ecumenical theology today. What does a given theological doctrine or ecclesial practice mean, not abstractly but concretely, in quite different places in the world? Unless that is a part of the ecumenical dialogue itself, part of the attempt to reach some kind of consensus, any ecumenical theology will be less than authentic and thus less than authoritative.

The emergence of a renewed interest in the specifics of "the context" thus provides the conditions necessary to the creation of a new type of ecumenism. Ecumenism in the past has too consistently concentrated upon forging links between ecclesiastical confessions and denominations. No doubt this will continue to be necessary, but it should not be the normative form of ecumenism. The more important bridges that have to be built now are between "regions" or spheres (East/West; North/South; the three "worlds," etc.) and movements [for peace, justice, and human rights]. In these "places," Christians out of many different ecclesiastical and theological backgrounds are involved. A working ecumenism pertains among most of them. What is needed is an ecumenical cross- fertilization in terms of the regions and causes that they represent. (Hall, 125). Hall refers to this as an "ecumenical praxis-theology." If ecumenism is to work at anything beyond the ecclesiastical multinationalism it too frequently represents, then the various agencies of the oikoumene will have to learn to serve the church at this level of cross-fertilization and mutuality of understanding. (Ibid.) Praxis, living, working together for the sake of bearing witness to God]s intentions in the world, tends to precede cognitive, doctrinal agreement. If the experience of living together, and the perceived cultural and social differences entailed in that, are not appreciated and worked through on their own terms, they are likely to haunt us and resist the most persuasively argued doctrinal consensus. The agreements themselves, if they do not resonate with what is a living, experienced reality, will hardly be authoritative, but will be felt to be alien or foreign. They are likely to be resisted, sometimes to irrational lengths, as some of the dissension over "Called to Common Mission" illustrates only too painfully. As the Preface to the Lima text of "Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry" put it: [Consensus] as a gift of the Spirit is realized as a communal experience before it can be articulated by common efforts into words. Full consensus can only be proclaimed after the churches reach the point of living and acting together in unity. (WCC, 1983, ix)

What this implies is the need for far more widespread communal discernment that goes far beyond the official dialogue groups, and involves heart as well as head, practical experience as well as theoretical analysis, and a genuine openness to the wisdom embodied in the other. "Genuine dialogue must be present*(in which participants) rise above the desire for control and esteem, laying these aside for the sake of finding God's leading through the whole community. The process is destroyed when voices are silenced, when honest listening is absent, when people push their own agenda, or when leaders wield their authority and power in ways that override the Spirt-led authority and power of the other participants." (Frank Rogers, Jr. in Bass, 113)

Recently, Michael Root, the former director of the Institute for Ecumenical Research at Strasbourg, has put the challenge in this way: "How does the church embody that listening to the Spirit, that mutual affirmation and admonition, that respect for collegiality, which cannot be legislated, but which forms true openness to divine guidance, the ultimate authority? The non-institutionalizable dimension of the location of authority within community requires a life together which embodies the practices, the trust, and the spirituality inherent in a theologically appropriate exercise of authority." (Ecumenical Review 52:1 (Jan., 2000), 68)

No one less than Cardinal Ratzinger has implied this sense of "living into" an ecumenicalagreement: "Unification requires of the whole faith community a thorough state of inner readiness for which neither theology nor ecclesial authority is an adequate substitution." (Principles of Catholic Theology [San Francisco: Ignatius, 87], 218-9).(end)

The Rev. Karen L. Bloomquist, Ph.D is Director, Department for Theology and Studies, Lutheran World Federation.