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Faithful Dissent

by Dr. Walter C. Huffman

February 25, 2002

photo of Dr. HuffmanThe statement below was written as an oral presentation for a convocation on “Conscience and Faithful Dissent” at Trinity Lutheran Seminary. Sending it to others is permitted as long as it is copied in its totality and printed with this notation. Any website wanting to use it should seek permission from the author who is speaking as an independent voice within the ELCA. This qualifying statement must be included as part of any transmission. Contact: whuffman@trinitylutheranseminary.edu

Dissent and disagreement does not come easily for me. When I was a child, I collected autographs from friends and parents. Below my father’s elaborate signature was this single line: “To my little politician.” Even at eight years of age, I tried to make peace between warring parents. Finding a way to heal that division pointed my life in the direction of diplomacy and compromise. This inclination or acquired skill serves me as husband, father, neighbor, and in my roles as mission-pastor and seminary professor.

I am surprised, therefore, to find myself disagreeing with friends, colleagues, relatives and my mentors. I am surprised by my inability to “get over it” and “get on with life” as some have encouraged. I am surprised at my passion on issues that endanger principles I learned in seminary, taught and promoted in my parish and seminary classes.

Some time ago I made an ecumenical decision based on gestural evidence rather than on doctrinal casuistry. I decided that my brothers and sisters are those who sit at table with me, not those who answer all the theological questions correctly. I unilaterally declared full altar and pulpit fellowship with Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, and Roman Catholics as well as Moravians and United Church of Christ types. I have come to believe that the radical call to fellowship at the table takes precedence over the deliberations of ecclesiastical councils and scholars.

I am, therefore, disturbed that Called to Common Mission mandates acceptance of an ecclesial system as a prerequisite for altar and pulpit fellowship. It is enough that there be faithful preaching of the Gospel and administration of the sacraments. As one opposed to CCM I have tried to be responsible by publishing my questions via our Trinity Seminary website, and by sending to Lutheran Partners an article which was mysteriously lost, and when found, rejected because it did not “fit publishing plans.”

I have corresponded and spoken on the telephone to colleagues in other seminaries and in the church wide offices, some who were strategic in the production and promotion of CCM. To my knowledge no one has addressed my questions. In this quest for answers, I have not been vilified; I have been ignored. So, I am grateful for this forum on “Conscience and Faithful Dissent” at Trinity Lutheran Seminary as an opportunity to rethink and restate my questions for anyone who wishes to take the time to read them. As in previous statements, I ask the questions from the perspective of my particular discipline — liturgical studies.

The Rite Question:

In this century, Lutherans have experienced the ecumenical impact of shared liturgies. Shortly after the publication of the Service Book and Hymnal there were mergers that produced the Lutheran Church in America and the American Lutheran Church. The publication of the Lutheran Book of Worship led to the creation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Shared rites imply shared theologies and often precipitate ecclesial union. A negative example of this principle was the withdrawal of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod from the LBW project. Using a common liturgy would have suggested doctrinal agreement and contradict the sectarian movement of that denomination.

Anglican-Episcopalians describe themselves as liturgical theologians. They read their theology out of the Book of Common Prayer and the manner in which its liturgies are conducted. Wrote Urban Holmes in What is Anglicanism? “Whereas some communions have their official theologies and others have their confessions, we have the Book of Common Prayer.[i] For that reason Called to Common Mission founds Lutheran agreement on the unaltered Augsburg Confession and the Small Catechism but the Episcopal Church on the Book of Common Prayer. [ii] For Episcopalians ordination is a rite before it is a theological or catechetical concept. The rite is the church’s most explicit public statement on the meaning of ministry. Therefore, one would assume that Episcopalians would insist on getting the rite right before ever finalizing a document of theological and institutional principles.

Neglecting liturgical matters among Lutherans has a long history. This may be due to the assumption that, if we get the theology right, then everything else including liturgy will follow. Initially, Luther believed right doctrine and the right teaching of it would lead to orthopraxis, theologically credible rites. Even as people applauded his theological views, however, they continued to rehearse ritual patterns contradicting that theology. In the end, Luther was forced to deal with an “evangelical form of saying mass.”[iii]

To consider the rite an afterthought or result of the thinking process is contradicted by studies on human behavior. The primary mode of religious discourse is speech to God, not about God. The ritual event accompanied by prayer and song is theologia prima. The entire liturgical experience constitutes this “language.” A second language, which is often called theology, is the body of statements and reflections based upon our dialogue with God. Even as I subscribe to the Lutheran confessions, I believe that most people most of the time learn their theology not from the Book of Concord but from Sunday celebration of Word and Sacrament. From the standpoint of history and social science, Episcopalians and Roman Catholics are correct in their assumption that “praying shapes believing.”

In the deliberations leading to the Concordat of Agreement and its revision, Called to Common Mission, one wonders why so little formal attention was paid to the significance and shape of the rite. The actual creation or changes in the rite for Lutherans appeared as an appendix to the document, evidently the work of the church wide office of presiding bishop, secretary or worship. Unlike the ordinal in Occasional Services, which went through a long approval process by four participating church bodies, I am unable to find out how this new rite was created or approved. The bylaw simply refers to the rite but where and how was the rite approved?

Bylaw amendment S.8.15

The presiding bishop of this church, or the appointee of the presiding bishop shall install in office in accord with the policy and approved rite of this church each newly-elected synodical bishop.

Consecration, Ordination or Installation?

In the following paragraph, Called to Common Mission compares Episcopal and Lutheran liturgical orders and references to “laying on of hands and prayer.”

CCM #10 — The New Testament describes a laying-on-of-hands to set persons apart for a variety of ministries. In the history of the church, many and variousterms have been used to describe the rite by which a person becomes a bishop. In the English language these terms include: confecting, consecrating, constituting, installing, making, ordaining, ordering. Both our traditions have used the term“consecration of bishops” for this same rite at some times. Today the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America uses the term “installation” while The Episcopal Church uses the word “ordination” for the rite by which a person becomes a bishop. What is involved in each case is the setting apart within the one ministryof Word and Sacrament of a person elected and called for the exercise of oversight (episcope) wider than the local congregation in the service of the Gospel.

The implication of this paragraph is that these terms are interchangeable (i.e. “…What is involved in each case is the setting apart …of a person elected and called for the exercise of oversight….”) The statement glosses over the fact that these terms carry different meanings and were adopted or rejected in previous liturgical resources for theological reasons. This is not just a matter of semantics. As a member of the task force that worked for three years to produce the Ordinal (i.e. rites of ordination and installation in the Occasional Services), I say from experience that the language chosen was very intentional. We struggled to find the words that would best express Lutheran theology as understood it in 1980. For instance, because the word “consecration” implied an ontological change in the subject (ordinand, eucharistic species, baptismal water), it was assiduously avoided. [iv] This task force included a broad representation of church leaders and teachers including the first presiding bishop of the ELCA. It then was reviewed and approved by the boards and bishops of the bodies that formed the ELCA.

As far back as the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus in 215 A.D., the laying on of hands and epiclesis prayer have been the key elements necessary for a rite of ordination. Episcopal scholar, Marian Hatchett in his Commentary on the American Prayer Book wrote “Martin Luther and other continental reformers, strongly influenced by their study of the Scriptures and of the early church fathers, concluded that the essentials of the ordination rite were prayer and the laying on of hands.” [v] Philip Pfatteicher in his Commentary on the Occasional Services confirms this analysis. [vi]

In general North American Lutheran understanding, bishop is regarded not as a rank but simply as an office that a pastor may hold. Therefore this service is notan ordination or consecration of the person elected bishop. The bishop does notkneel for the statement of bestowal of office, nor is there a laying on of handsduring that action.

So, we no longer have an installation rite; in truth, we have an ordination rite with its attendant theology. CCM spells a dramatic departure from the norm most of us have known. It is, therefore, very disturbing for CCM to suggest that the differences in language and in rite don’t really matter --- they add up to different ways of doing the same thing.

Through considerable research, it became clear to the Occasional Services task force that the laying-on-of-hands and epiclesis or prayer for the Holy Spirit distinguish a rite of ordination. Installation into any of a number of ministries, on the other hand, avoided the use of these ritual signs. How, therefore, can CCM and its ELCA proponents imply that this is a Lutheran rite for the installation of a bishop when it includes the liturgical inclusion of the laying on of hands and prayer for the Holy Spirit --- the definitive mark of an ordination rite?

Another disconcerting suggestion of Called to Common Mission is the implication that it is acceptable for Lutherans and Episcopalians to view the same liturgical experience differently, according to their own traditions. We may call it installation; Episcopalians may call it ordination. Does the bride’s family to interpret the marriage vow in one fashion, and the groom’s family another? Does the bride’s “I do” have a different meaning than the groom’s “I do?” That is theological as well as liturgical dishonesty. In the end, the rite will always determine the meaning of the experience -- not what we tell people it should mean!

When I first saw the new rite I called a friend and ELCA official who, I assumed, was involved in the production of this rite asking if he realized that this new “Installation of a Bishop” was, in reality, an ordination rite? Although he said that he was not aware that it bore the marks of an ordination rite, others in that office have recently said that everyone in the office knew it was an ordination rite -- but only Episcopalians would know or care.

In March 2002 of The Living Church, [vii] The Rt. Rev. C. Christopher Epting, deputy for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations for the Episcopal Church, wrote that Lutherans who felt they were not told the whole truth about CCM

“…apparently did not bother to read material produced by the ecumenical office of their church or the document itself which makes it clear that the traditional elements of ordination (i.e. the laying on of hands and invocation of the Holy Spirit for the office and work of a bishop) are indeed employed. How else could Anglicans have entered into the agreement and be consistent with point 4 of the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral?”

Contradicting Mr. Epting’s assertions are ELCA educational materials such as the following called Since You Asked: Questions and Answers on ‘Called To Common Mission.’ [viii]

Question: Will future ELCA bishops be ordained into the office of bishop?

Answer: No. Bishops of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America areordained ministers who have been elected to serve in the office of oversight. Bishops are installed, therefore into this office similar to the way in which a pastor is installed to any new call.”

This is clear evidence that Mt. Epting and the rest of us were misled in this matter. Was it sloppy scholarship or was this some kind of liturgical trick play? Call it installation but make it an ordination rite to accommodate our Episcopal friends who take liturgy seriously even when we do not? Why not just call it ordination? Calling it an ordination rite would have precipitated troubling questions and cost votes in the passage of CCM. The issue of ordaining deacons as a full and equal order might have become more prominent in the discussion. Although this writer was not party to the details of who worked on the rite or their knowledge of what transpired ---- one must admit that it is suspicious.

Historic Succession:

Reflecting CCM articles 11,12 and especially 13, the new Lutheran rite for the Installation of a Bishop contains this rubric:

Three bishops in historic succession join in the laying on of hands in conformity with the canons of the Council of Nicaea. Other bishops and representatives of churches with which a relationship of full communion has been established with this church may participate in the laying on of hands. (CCM November, 1998 “Liturgical Changes”)

This rubric, like its CCM parent, seeks to legitimize episcopal succession by referring to the canons of the Council of Nicaea. Beyond adopting the Nicene Creed, Lutherans have rarely if ever spoken of being in conformity with the canons of Nicaea. Why be so selective in choosing only Canon IV of Nicaea? We could dust off the canon from Nicaea prohibiting self-castration of clergy. Shall we take another look at the canon of Nicaea that recognizes the primacy of the bishop of Rome in the West? For the sake of accuracy, we should also remember that the same canon requiring three neighboring bishops for ordination also requires confirmation by a metropolitan! The reference to Nicaea attempts to validate the Anglo-Catholic myth of apostolic succession. Rather than appealing to Nicaea, we would do better to appeal to Worms where someone said: “…I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other….”

Even though we are not talking about ordination, (which, of course, we are!), it is important to the framers of this document that there be some sort of historical support, (which of course, there is not!). Liturgically, we have arrived at a decisive movement in the direction of a hierarchical church. Here we touch on one of the primary objections to CCM. Some Christians in America have a love and respect for hierarchical as well as royal traditions. Other people of American Lutheran persuasion were born and bred with great reservations about the power of civil as well as church authorities. CCM clearly moves Lutherans in the direction of a hierarchical church.

The Trinity Lutheran Seminary faculty statement in 1999 reflects the naiveté of many people. Addressing the fear many American Lutherans feel toward hierarchical abuse, it states that we will always have an antidote to “centralization and abuse of episcopal power” because we retain the right to:

“…give an evangelical interpretation to the office of bishop…We equally recognize that, although the Holy Spirit has given impetus and shape to the office of ordained ministry in the church in order to safeguard the integrity of the Gospel, we reject any hierarchical interpretation of this office…. Therefore, even though we support the introduction of the historic episcopate for bishops in the ELCA we affirm the non-hierarchical interpretation of that designation…. (Trinity Lutheran Seminary Faculty Statement on Called to Common Mission, April 1999)

How shall we exercise that right, this antidote? What safeguards are written into the Constitution or Bylaws? What mechanism will protect us from hierarchicalism? Will we protest by boycotting ordination rites? Will we grant exemptions for seminarians who then will carry the red flag of opposing historic succession in their files? How, with a straight face, can one speak of supporting the historic episcopate while rejecting its hierarchical interpretation? A hierarchical interpretation has always haunted this ecclesiastical form.

The problem is a significant one for a church tradition that places such great emphasis on baptism as the signal rite of ordination for all Christians, the sign of our common calling in Christ. [ix] History shows a hierarchy overly invested with status and power weakens the dignity and responsibility of the baptized. Studies show that hierarchically oriented churches have an emphasize maintenance rather than mission. Some years ago, Martin Marty said that baptism is “the hidden dynamite of Lutheranism.” Baptism is indeed at the heart of the evangelical critique that may yet expose and explode CCM.

I affirm efforts toward Christian unity but I do not believe that unity requires the acceptance of a specific governmental system for the sake of fellowship. I believe that the liturgical questions in this paper go reveal serious flaws in the theology and the process of CCM raising a host of other concerns. Were any credible liturgical theologians part of the process --- people who studied or represented past Lutheran positions in this matter? How will a congregation read the proposed ordination/installation of a bishop? As more of our bishops imitate their Episcopal and Roman Catholic counterparts dressing in full regalia, (i.e. mitre, cope, crosier), can we assume that they will more faithfully perform their office? Will such dressing up help them better understand that office? What kind of connection will people make between pomp and power? Rites are not just words. They have sonic, gestural, spatial, and visual dimensions as well. In the name of reciprocity, Lutherans should have required Episcopalians to include lay involvement in their rite by lay participation in the laying-on-of hands. That would have been fair and ecumenical since this is common practice in our sister Presbyterian churches. It would witness to the Lutheran principle of ministry springing from the Church through the congregation? Where were the serious studies on the implications of a strengthened hierarchical system before it slipped by at the church wide assembly? And the list goes on….

My Trinity colleague, Michael Root, recently has written a chapter on Lutheran Churches for a new publication in which he says: “Lutherans have been notoriously weak in ecclesiology and ecclesiology has often not been very important to Lutherans.” [x] In this paper I have agreed that Lutherans do not take seriously the ecclesiological dimensions of liturgy. It is confounding, therefore, for a church body that does not do ecclesiology or liturgy very well to enter into an agreement in those strategic areas, an agreement that deeply affects its life and identity.

When the Concordat, the parent of CCM was rejected in national assembly, advocates worked to pass another version of the document. At that time, they were the faithful dissenters who did not “get over it” and “move on” but worked to see their views adopted. I would like to think that a church that permitted and adopted their minority view will afford me, and those who think like me, the same voice and respect by reconsidering the commitment to the historic succession of bishops for Lutherans in America.


i. Urban Holmes, What is Anglicanism? (Wilton, Connecticut: Morehouse-Barlow, 1982, p. 46.) back

ii. Called to Common Mission: A Lutheran Proposal for a Revision of the Concordat of Agreement, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (Chicago, 1998) Article #4. back

iii. Ulrich S. Leupold, editor, Luther’s Works Volume 53 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1965) p. 19. back

iv. Philip Pfatteicher, who was a member of the Occasional Service Task force refers to this discussion in his Commentary on the Occasional Services (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983) p. 175. back

v. Marion Hatchett, Commentary on the American Prayer Book (NY: Seabury, 1981, p. 505. back

vi. Pfatteicher, pp. 218-219. back

vii. Living Church, March 3, 2002. p. 15. back

viii. Since You Asked, Department of Ecumenical Affairs of the ELCA, March 2001. back

ix. “Whoever comes out of the water of Baptism can boast that he is already a consecrated priest, bishop and pope.” There is no true, basic difference between laymen and priests, princes and bishops, between the religious and secular except for the sake of the office and work, but not for the sake of status. They are all of the same spiritual estate, are all truly priests, bishops, and popes. But they do not have the same work to do.” As quoted by Gritsch and Jenson in Lutheranism from Luther’s Works 44 (Fortress: Philadelphia, 1965) p. 129. back

x. 10. Paul Avis, editor. The Christian Church. (SPCK) p. 208. back