WordAlone - Transcript: Address to First WordAlone Convention, 1999
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Transcript of Address
by Dr. David W. Preus
(Former President of the American Lutheran Church)

February 1999

Thank you, Roger and thank you very much for calling this assemblage. I'm delighted for this kind of an opportunity. For the opportunities have been too much one-sided in the other direction. And I'm delighted also that once again I can be with Dr. Robert Marshall with whom a great many wonderful experiences are in our mutual history. A snippet of history is in order. (I wanted to say, too, that Dr. Marshall and I have been in no collusion and I'm going to read what I have to say so that you can recognize that it was done before I got here.)

A snippet of history is in order. To my chagrin it makes clear the political astuteness of those who have nursed the Lutheran-Episcopal dialogue to its current status. Lutheran participants in Lutheran Episcopal Dialogue #2, with the complicity of the then heads of the church, Marshall and Preus, made clear the Lutheran readiness to accept the Episcopal church, its ministry, its sacraments, and enter into what was then called "pulpit and altar fellowship" with the Episcopalians.

It was clear that it was the Episcopal rejection of the Lutheran proposal that prevented full, mutual communion. The Episcopalians avoided being the negative ones at that time by proposing, in 1982, the Interim Communion , which has been, in being, since then. By so doing they avoided the ones of being the nay-sayers

In Lutheran Episcopal Dialogue #3, however, enough Lutheran participants joined the Episcopal representatives in desiring the Episcopal succession (You remember Lutherans voted for it by 5-3) to turn appearances around. Now the Lutherans were put in the negative position. It does not change the fact, however, that it is the Episcopal refusal to accept each other as we are that is causing all the current hardship.

There are profoundly Lutheran objections to the Concordat. They are not because Lutherans do not like or respect Episcopalians. Rather Lutherans stand ready at any time for a full, mutual acceptance of each other’s churches, sacraments, and ministries. The Lutheran objections stem from the Episcopal requirement that Lutherans accept the Episcopal ordering of ministry. The Concordat requires Lutheran clergy to be ordained according to Episcopal orders in order for full communion to exist between Episcopalians and Lutherans. Unless Lutherans assure the Episcopalians that all future Lutheran ordinations will meet their standards, which includes a special ordination for bishops, an ordination into the episcopal succession for all pastors, the Episcopalians will not enter, which is now called, full communion.

The Reformation brought many things back into focus. One of the important results of the Reformation was the re-capturing of a direct Word of God line from God, through Christ, to individual believers. Such a reformation was necessary because a system had developed whereby the Church, through its specially endowed ministry, was the intermediary between God and individual humans. A specialized priesthood had been created without whom faith could not be properly initiated or sustained. This priesthood was credentialed by specially ordained bishops. As time went on, these properly ordained "professional priests" were declared to be the only ones who could "confect" the Lord’s Supper or perform baptisms.

The order of salvation proceeded from God, to Church, to believer. The Reformers, instead, saw the process as God, to believer, to Church. The phrase "the priesthood of believers" resulted from just such an outlook regarding the character of life in Christ.

The Word of God is the instrument by which the Holy Spirit creates faith, and God’s Word is not tied to any particular priesthood. Believers assemble to be the church, and to choose persons from its ranks to be preachers and teachers and administrators of its Sacraments.

A second major objection is that the Concordat requires Lutherans to accept, in terms of practice, an addition to the Article Seven of the Augsburg Confession. This Article declares that which is necessary for the unity of the church, namely, agreement in the Gospel and right administration of the Sacraments. Article Seven says nothing about ordination or ministry. Article Seven remains totally consistent with Lutheran insistence on the central justification article. The Concordat says that something else is necessary. Namely, ordination of clergy into episcopal succession.

The Concordat requires the Lutherans to acquiesce to the Episcopal understanding of ordained ministry by requiring at least these following items:

Commitment that all future ELCA bishops will be ordained/installed in a rite in which episcopally ordained bishops participate in the laying on of hands, thus assuring that it is a proper, Episcopal ordination. Secondly, a commitment that all future ELCA clergy will be ordained by properly ordained bishops. Third, ELCA commitment to a future adoption of the three-fold ministry.

There are Lutheran clergy who desire the episcopal ordination into what they understand to be the historic succession. I confess that it was a surprise for me to discover that it was so. But it is! They believe that Lutheran freedom to adopt the best possible form of Church orders should enable us to join the Episcopalians in their version of the apostolic succession. However, Lutherans are not choosing Episcopal orders because they believe it is the best ordering of ministry. But because the Episcopalians are requiring it before full communion to exist. Does anybody think for a moment that we would be in this business of choosing, that ordering of ministry, apart from a requirement being laid down by another Church?

That fact makes no difference for those who want Lutherans to be in the historic succession. It makes a great deal of difference for those of us who believe it a departure from Lutheran theology and practice and who believe it a weakening of the fabric of the whole people of God.

There are outgrowths of episcopal ordering that are objectionable to Lutherans. Such ordering, I believe, is inherently hierarchical and undercuts the understanding that the Church is a priesthood of believers.

A second ordination into the ranks of bishops, cannot but be perceived as an institutional elevation. The perception of the Church as a caste system with bishops at the top, lesser clergy in the middle, and laity at the bottom is inevitable. Even if servant language is used, there would be a hierarchy of servants. It is true that we have difficulty keeping such thinking at bay in the existing Lutheran communion. However, Lutherans have been able to be theologically insistent that there is only one priesthood of believers that includes the entire people of God.

There are many important objections to the Concordat and you will hear them today in addition to that mentioned, though I suspect there will be considerable unanimity on the primary objection. The first is already apparent in the way the ELCA’s agenda . . .(no, I wish to mention two more that I believe will be continuing plagues.) The first is already apparent in the way the ELCA has been focused on this matter of ordained ministry. I believe the Concordat, passed, will assure a continuing church focus on questions of ordained ministry and church organization.

Second, I believe the Concordat will result in an ecumenical loss. The rest of the mainline Protestant churches have made it clear they will not acquiesce to Episcopal insistence on episcopal succession. It is beyond the pale for conservative Evangelical and Pentecostal churches to even consider such an eventuality. In adopting the Concordat, ELCA Lutherans will have moved toward creation of a minor denominational group that is a late-comer to the large "C" catholic grouping of churches. I see no gain, only loss in this.

My hope is that Lutherans will approach the unity question with a reconciled diversity stance. If I may borrow from Lee Snook, who is going to have his own say, I think his description of the Church as a baobab tree is helpful. Let each of the churches that clearly affirm the apostolic faith live as they are in the confidence that all who confess the Triune God are attached to the same trunk. Lutherans can understand themselves to be in full communion with fellow Christians whether other Christians are ready to claim that or not. It will not change the fact of our being attached to the same tree: one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all. Thank you.