I. During the 2009 churchwide assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the ELCA’s robust commitment to ecumenism was difficult to discern. As with virtually everything else at this assembly, the attention of the voting members was focused on one issue - the social statement on human sexuality and the resolutions on the blessing of same sex unions and whether actively gay and lesbian persons may serve in the ordained ministry of the church. Yet even within the assembly’s discussion on the sexuality issues, the ecumenical implications of such actions were scarcely mentioned. It was as if the ELCA had become a church within itself, apart from much concern for its participation within the church catholic.
To be sure, there were ecumenical moments during the assembly. The ecumenical creeds were professed during the assembly’s liturgies. There were the usual greetings from full communion partners and from ecumenical and Lutheran agencies and communions. The assembly adopted a full communion relationship with the United Methodist Church. Yet even this significant action elicited little reflection among the voting members on the ELCA’s ecumenical mission and ministry.
The only discordant ecumenical notes during the assembly were the gracious, but pointed, remarks by two ecumenical guests. Archbishop William Gregory of the United States Catholic Conference reminded the ELCA of the critical role of Biblical teaching on ethical issues. President Gerald Kieschnick of the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod, addressing the assembly decisions, spoke ominously of a “chasm” that threatened ongoing relationships between the ELCA and the LCMS.
What surprised and disappointed many was that there was almost no recognition that the decisions of the assembly would have serious ecumenical implications.
Prior to the assembly there were numerous expressions of concern from the ecumenical Christian community. From within the Lutheran family there were warning messages from the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod and from African, Asian, and Eastern European churches. There were communications, both public and private, from outside the Lutheran community as well - from the Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church, and the evangelical Protestant churches. All these churches expressed alarm at what was being proposed to the churchwide assembly, and all of them called for the defeat of the proposals.
During the debates at the assembly, however, these ecumenical concerns were scarcely mentioned. Those who opposed the resolutions seldom stressed them. Those who favored the resolutions completely ignored them.
Here, in short, was a church, with a credible ecumenical record and with a high ecumenical commitment, considering a major ethical and doctrinal issue that chose to go its own way, apart from the witness of the church catholic.
II. Thus far the ecumenical impact of the decisions of the 2009 churchwide assembly is still a work in progress. Whether the warnings from other churches to the ELCA prior to the assembly will seriously affect ongoing relationships remains to be seen. Broadly speaking, the mantra thus far seems to be: stress and strain, pray and talk.
Within the ELCA itself, a clear sign of trouble ahead would be the withdrawal of African and other partnership relationships with the various ELCA synods. Over the years every ELCA synod has developed a partner relationship with another Lutheran church body or diocese/synod. Some synods have more than one partner. The development of these church to church partnerships has been one of the better ministries of the ELCA.
Prior to the assembly, several of these churches raised questions about continuing these partnerships. It remains to be seen, whether their warnings will be followed by a break in the partnership relationships with ELCA synods.
Another concern is whether the ELCA can retain a cadre of leaders within itself who are willing to carry on the theological work of the ecumenical dialogs. Numerous academic theologians have been highly committed to the ecumenical vision of the ELCA. Several of these theologians, however, have expressed reservations about the decisions that were made in Minneapolis. Whether now these theologians will personally withdraw from the theological dialogs remains unclear. Should this happen, the quality of the ELCA’s dialog process with other churches will be seriously affected.
t will be important to follow the reactions from the international Lutheran community. The presiding bishop of the ELCA also serves as President of the Lutheran World Federation. The LWF has its own study on marriage, the family, and sexuality. As a result of the decisions it has made, the ELCA has now effectively aligned itself with the positions of the Scandinavian churches and with several German territorial churches. By contrast, most Lutheran churches in Africa are in outspoken opposition. Will this conflict result in the breakup of the LWF? Probably not. But there will surely be further stress and strain in the LWF’s self - understanding as a communion of churches. In this process the reactions from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania and the Mekane Jesus Church in Ethiopia will be critical.
A comparable weakening will also characterize the ELCA’s relationship with the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod. That relationship was already pretty weak, limited largely to shared forms of social ministry - Lutheran Services of America, Disaster Relief, etc. Those cooperative ministries will likely continue, but there will hardly be any further improvement in relationships among Lutherans in the United States. The ELCA and the LCMS will go their separate and divided ways, and the quest for Lutheran unity in the United State seems to have come to a dead end.
An equally serious concern is the future of the theological dialog processes between the ELCA and the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches. These churches had already expressed grave warnings to the ELCA, should the churchwide assembly adopt the proposals it was considering on sexuality and the ordained ministry. Now that these proposals have been adopted, it is hard to see how the Roman - Lutheran and Orthodox - Lutheran dialogs will improve. Thus far, the reaction of the Orthodox has been an ominous silence. The much-vaunted joint Lutheran - Roman Catholic celebration of the five hundredth anniversary of the Reformation in 2017 is now very unlikely.
One wonders what will be the impact of the ELCA’s decisions on that church’s full communion partners. Already the Moravians and United Methodists have raised questions about the interchangeability of clergy. With the adoption of a full communion relationship with the United Methodist Church, the possibility of further full communion relationships with other Protestant churches is not very likely.
To say it again: The ELCA has now chosen to go its own way on a major doctrinal and ethical issue. It has tragically chosen to ignore its own Biblical and confessional tradition, the witness of two thousand years of Christian teaching on marriage and sexuality, and the consensus on these teachings by the vast majority of Christian churches today.
III. It is unclear what the ecumenical impact will have on the major reform and confessional movements that have emerged from the ELCA: namely, the WordAlone Network and Lutheran CORE. The WordAlone Network was initially formed as a movement in opposition to CCM, the full communion agreement between the ELCA and The Episcopal Church. The WordAlone network has also objected to the Joint Statement on Justification, an agreement between the LWF and the Roman Catholic Church.
For its part, Lutheran CORE has been preoccupied with the conflict over sexuality within the ELCA and has not said much at all about ecumenical matters. It should be noted, however, that several supporters within Lutheran CORE are highly committed to ecumenism, especially the dialogs with Rome and Orthodoxy.
It should also be noted there are presently ongoing conversations between the WordAlone Network and Lutheran CORE. Both movements are considering the possibility of a “reconfiguration” of North American Lutheranism. Another Lutheran church body may emerge out of this process. In spite of this present time of discernment, however, a number of ecumenical opportunities do exist.
Lutheran CORE could easily join the WordAlone Network in becoming a member of the Association for Church Renewal. ACR is an informal, but valuable, round table, made up of representatives of reform movements within the major American Protestant churches.
Another possibility would be the cultivation of partnerships with other Lutheran churches, using the ELCA partnership model of synods and other Lutheran churches. The WordAlone Network already has some contacts with a few of these churches. Lutheran CORE has begun to make similar connections. The presence of immigrant African congregations within Lutheran CORE offers possibilities for a deeper engagement with the international Lutheran community. A few Lutheran churches in Eastern Europe have expressed interest in developing their relationships with both the WordAlone Network and Lutheran CORE.
Were this year of discernment to result in the formation of a Lutheran church body, membership in the Lutheran World Federation would become a distinct possibility. Another might be covenantal relationships of some type with the newly-formed Anglican Church in North America and with other comparable Protestant communities.
One may hope that theologians on their own might organize free theological conferences for reflection on ecumenical issues.
One may also hope for a rebirth of local ecumenism. In the face of the present desultory ecumenical scene, local ecumenism may offer the best opportunity of all. It would be marvelous indeed to see Lutheran congregations and pastors, worshiping and serving with other Christian congregations and pastors in their communities, for the cause of the ecumenical mission.
IV. The ecumenical impact of the ELCA’s decisions on human sexuality and the ministry is truly grievous and tragic. Those decisions are already affecting the ELCA itself, as many individuals and congregations are presently in the process of leaving the ELCA, and the formation of another Lutheran church body is a distinct possibility.
On the principle, “where one member suffers, all suffer together,” the ELCA’s decisions are having a severe impact on the ELCA’s relationship with the whole church, especially among those churches with whom the ELCA has been ecumenically engaged.
There remains the hope, however, that the ELCA’s experience may contain an important message for the whole church. It is: No church should make a far-reaching decision on its faith and life without prior consultation and reflection within the church catholic. While in the present circumstances each communion has its own identity, each communion simultaneously participates in the community of the body of Christ. What each church does affects the others, especially when major issues of faith and life are involved. No one communion can act unilaterally on such issues. To do so is to fracture the unity of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church - a grievous sin indeed.
Perhaps the various Christian communions need to develop some ecumenical mechanism, so that the ELCA’s experience will not be repeated in the future. If so, what has happened within the ELCA may contain a salutary lesson for the future of the whole church.