Before I begin, I need to disclose my bias to you. I did not take on this assignment wholeheartedly. When the board asked me to talk about electing HE free bishops, I wasn't sure that I could because frankly I wasn't sure that we should spend time and energy trying to fix something that is beyond repair. In my mind, the only conceivable reason for electing HE free bishops is so that these bishops would come under the jurisdiction of the new ELCA constitution and either their elections would be declared invalid or else they would become the subjects of the ELCA discipline process. Then maybe God would see fit to, as Saint Paul would say, "use what is low and despised in the world to reduce to nothing the things that are." Now I know that not everyone in this room agrees with my position. There is, in fact, a continuum at work among us. Many of you share my convictions. Others would rather work with the system to reform the ELCA. And then, of course there's the shades of gray in between. But as my friend John Fahning told me, we all have one thing in common. We're all allergic to the blue gas.
Now that I've laid out my disclaimer, we'll move to the presentation.
As I see it, when it comes to electing a Bishop there are two issues at work. The more I consider these issues, the more I've come to believe that they are not mutually exclusive.
Issue 1 -- As Tim has already said, there is a need for pastoral and spiritual leadership from anyone who would assume the position of bishop. There are places in our synods that know hurt and neglect. There are churches that suffer from division and strife. There are congregations that, because of the declining population of the communities they serve (especially rural communities), are being forced to make painful and difficult decisions. But most of all, the baptized members of our church are hungering and thirsting for the Word. They need a bishop who will devote him/herself to preaching and teaching, a bishop who first believes that the Word is sufficient to raise up God's people and then dispatches the ministry accordingly.
Issue 2 -- I know I'm stating the obvious here, but it bears repeating. For many of us, there is now the need to resist. Put simply, the passage of Called to Common Mission has created a confessional crisis in our church. Larry Wohlrabe speaks eloquently about the Lutheran desire for the centrality of the Gospel. He says, "If there is anything that we as Lutheran Christians have tried to get straight...it is that God loves us unconditionally, forgives us though we don't deserve it and gives us more life in Christ than we'll ever know what to do with." This is the Good News of Jesus Christ and it must always be at the center of our life together. This is why article 7 of the Augsburg Confession limits ecumenical discussions to agreement on Gospel and Sacrament. It keeps our eye on the only thing that matters, on Jesus Christ and Him crucified. We now, however, live in a church that has devalued Gospel and Sacraments by adding the Historic Episcopate to the list of items we call sufficient. The leadership of this church has both ignored and silenced significant voices of objection. The objection raised was not radical, extremist, or mean spirited. It focused itself on legitimate confessional concerns. It should, therefore, not be surprising that CCM's passage has thwarted the very unity it sought to create and brought the church we all loved to the point of schism. Those significant voices will not go away. The constitution has changed but our faith commitments have not. We must resist. The freedom of the Gospel is at stake.
What follows are three points that I believe address both of these key issues.
I -- First of all, I've heard some distinctions made between administrative and theological functions of the position of bishop and I'm not sure what that means. I've also heard the position of bishop characterized as a position of oversight. I am, at best, finding that description confusing. Oversight could mean vastly different things to different people. The confessions, however, make the matter clear. (According to article 28 of the AC, article 14/28 of the Apology to the AC, and the Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope), bishops have no more and no less authority than do pastors. The job of the bishop is to preach the gospel, administer the sacraments, and retain and forgive sins. In other words, a bishop's only divinely sanctioned task is to feed the flock. They are to do this by publicly proclaiming the holy and sacred means of grace. Furthermore it is clear that when bishops engage in the extra confessional activity of imposing human rites and ceremonies, they get themselves in trouble. This was true in the 16th century and it's true now. Following it's own logic, the ELCA is imposing as mandatory the Historic Episcopate yet calling it a non essential practice. It has thus put the church in the position of having to enforce something that is not necessary. So even if you follow the ELCA's own fiction (mandatory but not essential), the question begs itself. Is this what bishops are called to do, act as police over matters that have no salvific import? It seems to me that a bishop who would resist implementation of the Historic Episcopate would have the effect of prophetically raising this question in a church that needs one thing but continually gets another. It needs faithful preachers of the Gospel but gets bean counters and enforcement agencies. A bishop's ministry must be centered in the Office of the Keys. Likewise, the Keys should act as a job description which limits a bishop's activity. If a bishop is not first and foremost engaged in public proclamation, then that bishop is probably not doing the job to which he/she was called.
II -- he rite for installation of a bishop asks the following question. I'm quoting now from the Occasional Services Book. "Will you be faithful in your office? Will you discharge your duties in accordance with the Holy Scriptures and the Confessions of the Lutheran Church, and in harmony with the constitution of this synod?"
The candidacy of someone who will disobey the constitution forces the question: What if the constitution of the synod is not in harmony with the Gospel and the Lutheran Confessions? Now this is a serious charge. We are asking delegates to our synod assemblies, many of whom are not fully aware of the church's current state, to consider the possibility that the ELCA constitution works against the Confessions. This is not an easy thing for most folk to do. They want to believe that the church can be trusted with such matters. They want to assume that church leadership knows best. And while from time to time there might be some frustration over the directions that our leadership has charted, most delegates will not be easily moved off center. It is, after all, one thing to get angry with church leadership. It's quite another to cut the cord and disobey. So now a candidate for bishop comes along who makes it clear that he/she will disobey the constitution. It won't take much spin to dismiss that candidate as a marginal extremist who should not be taken seriously. At this point, I'd like to tell you a story. When I was in sixth grade, I was selected to sit in the viola section of the Sioux City Youth Symphony. The conductor was a man by the name of Isaac Ostrow. Professor Ostrow was a tyrant! He would yell, and scream, and stomp his feet until we got it right. Rehearsals were a nightmare. But through the course of the year, something changed in us. We began to wake from our sleep. We began to hear and see things in a new way. I remember the last concert that spring. After the performance, Dr Ostrow gathered us in a room and told us that he would be leaving Sioux City to take a job elsewhere. And I wept. I wept because this radical, zealous, music extremist would no longer lead us. He had, in the course of a few short months changed our lives, so that the music was not something we played, we became the music. My friends, if they want to call us extremists---guilty as charged. We are extremists, extremists in service of the Gospel. Furthermore in extreme times, this is precisely what the church needs. Such bishop candidates must remind folks that as Lutherans, we are a church of the reformation and that raising such questions is the most faithful thing we can do. To love the church is to not parrot the party line or maintain the status quo. To love the church is to instead hold the church's feet to the fire, to demand that the church submit itself to another fire, the reforming, refining, cleansing fire of the Holy Spirit.
III -- I think we need to be clear about why a member of the WordAlone Network should become a bishop. Becoming bishop is not about attaining power. It is about relinquishing power. If some among us are elected bishop in an effort to grab the initiative, then we will fare no better than those who currently hold such positions. At this point, we must acknowledge and confess that the temptation to fight fire with fire, to overcome the powerful by taking power is a very real temptation. It is also a temptation to which we must not succumb. Taking leadership in the church of Jesus Christ is about humbling oneself and becoming a servant--a servant of the Word and a servant of the church, that assembly of believers who have faithfully gathered around the cross. If in these endeavors we do nothing else, we must remain faithful to this calling--and those among us who would become bishop must daily drown all ambitious pretensions in the waters of the baptismal covenant. For such life and such a ministry are not the products of human effort, but the direct result of the God of all creation, who will reform and reshape each of us into trumpets that announce His glory, His majesty, His love. Imagine. Imagine electing bishops who reflexively think and act in the categories of Law and Gospel, whose every decision is tempered and shaped by death and resurrection, whose instincts drive him/her to find new ways to proclaim the Lord's death until he comes. Imagine bishops who when it comes to matters of salvation, so submit themselves to their calling that they know nothing of the art of compromise. Imagine installing bishops who simply say "no" to the holy orders and then yield themselves to the judgement of the ELCA discipline process, letting the chips fall where they may. My friends, our identity is revealed in loss. Indeed, to lose everything for the sake of the Gospel is to gain Christ, to reveal Christ, and to proclaim Christ. What more could we want or ask for in a bishop?