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A radical departure

Dr. David W. Preus (former presiding bishop of The American Lutheran Church)

March 26, 2000


This speech was given at the first WordAlone national gathering at Mahtomedi, Minnesota, March 26, 2000. David Preus is the former President of The American Lutheran Church.

Preliminary Statements

Dear Friends in Christ:
  1. The controversy over CCM is not between "good" people and "bad" people, nor is it a controversy between Lutherans and Episcopalians. It is an important family disagreement, a disagreement in the ELCA branch of the whole family of God. Proponents and opponents continue to be sisters and brothers in Christ who continue to gather at the family table to share the blessings of our Lord. There is no need for us to poor mouth each other. I am very aware that there are good friends, devoted disciples of Christ, who believe CCM entails virtually no change for Lutherans. I have tried, and found it impossible to read CCM and come to such a conclusion. We would not be having this meeting if there were not many of us who cannot read CCM to require no change in confession. There is major disagreement on what CCM does to the church, and a way must be found for disagreeing parties to live together.
  2. I am not interested in leaving the ELCA and starting a new church. I am interested in an ELCA that does not become a narrowed down church but is, as it is now, broad enough to include people who support a Lutheran adoption of the historic episcopate and those who oppose it. It is a tragedy that CCM has been cast in a win-lose mode in the ELCA. I am among those who believe that CCM is a radical departure from Lutheran teaching and practice, and will diminish Lutheran contribution to the ecumenical church over the long haul. I believe the ecumenical road to the future is one of "reconciled diversity" where no Word and Sacrament Church is required to change convictions or practices in order to commune with the ELCA. Most American Lutherans -- Episcopalians Orthodox Roman Catholics and Protestants -- are already practicing such ecumenicity at the local level.
  3. The phrase "radical departure" with respect to CCM is not original with me. It comes from a letter written in 1998 by nine prominent Lutheran Reformation scholars who warned against the ELCA adoption of CCM. Listen to their words. "Affirming the historic episcopate and the ordination procedures which accompany it constitutes a radical redefinition of ordained ministry, and is a radical departure from the Lutheran perspective." Let me set before you some of the places where I see such departures.

I. CCM Is A Radical Departure From U.S. Lutheran History

None of the U.S. Lutheran immigrant groups sought to re-institute the historic episcopate as they formed and grew their churches. All of the immigrant churches rejected even the level of hierarchical development in the European Lutheran churches The U.S. Lutheran churches developed their own forms and practices regarding ordination and the structuring of the church's life. Illustrative is the experience of the Augustana Lutheran Church. Because of their ties with the Church of Sweden it might have been thought likely that the Augustana Church would lean toward some form of episcopal structuring of the church. Instead, according to Dr. Mark Granquist, former Augustana member and now professor at St. Olaf College, the Augustana Synod on four different occasions refused involvement in the historic episcopate. Twice it was offered to them by American Episcopalians and twice by representatives of the Church of Sweden. Listen to what Dr. Conrad Bergendoff, outstanding Augustana pastor and one of the outstanding American theologians yet produced, said with respect to this issue when Augustana last faced this issue in 1935. "...the church that results from the preaching of the Word will produce its own form of organization, and where there is unity of faith there will be unity of love, but to insist that there must be one form or organization...we could not accept." That has been the unanimous judgment of U.S. Lutheran churches since their founding.

Look at more recent history. It is often suggested that 30 years of Lutheran-Episcopal dialogue was something of a straight shoot to the Concordat and then CCM. That certainly was not the case. In 1982, after approximately 13 years of such dialogues, the participants found themselves at an impasse over the issue of the historic episcopate. The Lutheran representatives were prepared to recommend that the then LCA and ALC recognize the Episcopal Church, its ministry, and its sacraments and enter into what was then called altar and pulpit fellowship. The Lutherans were willing to accept the Episcopal Church as it was. The Episcopal representatives were not willing to accept the Lutherans as they were, however, and persisted in requiring the Lutherans to adopt the historic episcopate. The Lutherans refused, as far as I know unanimously. Rather than simply say there was an impasse, the formula of an "Interim Sharing of the Eucharist" came into being.

Then came the next round, LED III. New Lutheran representatives were appointed. This time the Lutheran contingent included some who favored the historic episcopate and supported the Episcopalian requirement. The resultant theological battle among the Lutheran dialogue participants continued to the very end of the deliberations. When the Concordat appeared it represented not concord among the Lutheran representatives but division. The Lutherans supported it by only a 5-3 margin. A minority report was issued. It is significant that the press releases, even in the 'Lutheran" magazine, referred to the committee vote as 13-3. Of course the Episcopal participants voted for it. It required no change for them. I have always felt that this very initial narrow vote of 5-3 by the Lutherans should have signaled the necessity of wider study and consideration by the rank and file of the ELCA.

You know the subsequent history. A failure of the 2/3 majority required to pass CCM in Philadelphia; appointment of a committee to deal with disagreements regarding the Concordat; the astonishing instruction from the Lutheran bishop announcing that the chief cause of contention, the historic episcopate, must not be touched in any new proposal; synod votes that indicated a majority of CCM opponents in many ELCA synods: a two year full court press to get the necessary 2/3 vote at the Denver Assembly; and a resulting vote that puts the ELCA at odds with the history of all of its previous church bodies. I believe that is a radical departure from U.S. Lutheran history.

I cannot believe that ELCA leadership will insist on a narrow, legalistic imposition of rules and regulations that have always been considered by Lutherans to be adiaphora. I cannot believe the ELCA, heir to a consistent U.S. Lutheran position, would exclude from full participation in ministry those whose consciences have been formed by the consistent teaching and practice of all predecessor U.S. Lutheran churches. I cannot believe that the ELCA will give up its flexibility for response to the changing character of human society. There are ways available for adherents of both historic episcopate and historic Lutheran practice to be included fully in the ELCA. I hope this gathering will endorse the Milwaukee Resolution. It provides one way to have it both ways. The sooner that is established the sooner we can give full attention to the mission of the church.

II. CCM--A Radical Departure From Augsburg Confession, ArticleVII

CCM is confessionally a radical departure. The Bible says nothing about an historic episcopate. The Augsburg Confession, Article VII, says "it is enough for the unity of the church that there be agreement in the gospel and right administration of the sacraments." This article is the great Lutheran contribution to bringing all Christian churches into communion with one another. The historic episcopate divides, not unites. Proponents of CCM believe and argue that CCM represents no change in ELCA or Lutheran confession or theology. Others of us believe that the "requirement" of ordination in the historic episcopate in order to declare full communion among Christians is an addition to Augsburg VII, and a clouding of the clear, terse, lean Lutheran declaration that agreement in Word and Sacrament is enough. Listen to what the church historians say at this point. "The Confessions and the Scriptures both teach us that the historic episcopate is not divinely instituted. Since it has been instituted by humans, not by God, it may be an option for some church bodies but must never be understood as a requirement." If('CM is legalistically imposed ELCA persons seeking ordination will have to be acceptable as Episcopal priests in order to become Lutheran pastors. To accept any other "requirement" save Word Alone, present in Word and Sacraments, is a radical departure from the Augsburg Confession, Article VII.

III. CCM--A Radical Departure From The Priesthood Of All Believers

A required historic episcopate is a radical departure from the Lutheran understanding of the priesthood of all believers. To require ordination/installation of ELCA bishops into the historic episcopate, and require that only "properly" ordained bishops can ordain pastors, is foreign to most Lutheran teaching and practice. Luther and the Reformers insisted that there is no special priesthood that stands between God and believer. There is only one mediator between God and believer, and that is Jesus Christ. Every believer has access to God through the Word, and every believer is summoned by God's Word to be a gospel bearer to others.Bishops are ordained pastors of the church.. regional pastors if you will, who are called to perform certain duties for the church. The movement to the historic episcopate is away from the understanding that pastors and bishops hold the same office, and that the ordained ministry belongs to the church and not to the clergy. Lutherans have understood the ordained ministry in functional terms. Clergy are of no different status than laity. All believers have 'offices." Clergy are laity with the office of the ministry of Word and Sacrament.

Furthermore, requiring a second ordination/installation of bishops, with the resultant sole right to ordain pastors, is inherently hierarchical and a radical departure from Lutheran belief and practice. A unique second ordination/installation of bishops, requiring the presence of three other bishops in the historic succession, cannot but be perceived as an institutional elevation. The broad perception of the church as a Christian caste system, bishops on top, lesser clergy next, and laity on the lowest rung, is inevitable. The Reformation Scholars' mentioned above refer to "the inevitable hierarchical implications of an affirmation of the historic episcopate..." Even if "servant" language is used there will be an hierarchy of "servants." The ordering of ministry required by CCM is not compatible with the priesthood of all believers.

IV. CCM -- A Radical Ecumenical Departure

For the ELCA to accept an historic episcopate is a radical ecumenical departure. Proponents see it as ecumenical gain because it is a Lutheran step toward the 2/3ds of the world's Christians who hold some form of historic episcopate. I see such acceptance as an ecumenical loss. It is a requirement for structural uniformity in order to express our unity in Christ. I believe the ecumenical future lies in "reconciled diversity" and not in structural uniformity. The Christian family is in for endless attention to matters of ministry and structure if organizational uniformity is viewed as a necessity for full communion. Laying requirements on each other in order to express unity is divisive rather than uniting.

Look what has happened in other settings. For the last 30 years 8 or 10 mainline U.S. Protestant churches, including the Episcopal Church USA, have been seeking structural unity. The Episcopal Church insisted on the historic episcopate. The rest of the churches refused to adopt the historic episcopate. The Episcopal Church has now withdrawn from this group. As I understand it, the rest of the churches are currently working on creating a "communion of communions." I believe CCM tilts the ELCA away from other mainline Protestant churches, and surely moves the ELCA even further away from the Conservative Evangelical and Pentecostal Churches. Augsburg VII enables a unity in "reconciled diversity" that does not require an organizational tilt either toward episcopal or non-episcopal churches.

V. CCM -- A Top-down Initiative

The "top down" character of the presentation and adoption of CCM is a radical departure from the best of Lutheran decision making process. There was no pressure for the historic episcopate from the ELCA laity or even from the great majority of parish pastors. The historic episcopate simply was not on the screen for most of us. It focuses attention on the ordained clergy, especially bishops, at a time when the ministry of the laity is obviously the crucial matter. The key placement of a few strong proponents of the historic episcopate enabled a "managed" process by which the historic episcopate became an issue in the church. Most of us were glad for and satisfied with the good relationships between Episcopalians and Lutherans. We attend each other's churches, share together at the Lord's table, and find ways for a joint ministry where that is needed. All of the motions toward the historic episcopate were initiated by church officials and then "sold" to a constituency without any significant opportunity to hear from the opposition or reflect on alternatives. Even very broad ELCA rejection of the historic episcopate in many synod assemblies brought no response other than "full speed ahead." To my mind this represents a radical departure from the best of Lutheran practice.

Final Comments

We live at a time in history when the overwhelming impulse in both church and society is to focus attention on the authority and responsibility of each individual person.

Even the most secular organization seeks leadership from "below." National life around the world is pulsating with efforts at democratization. Corporate entities are engaged in extensive "team building" which seeks to bring together as equals people from different offices. A cursory glance at the church indicates the necessity of a high focus on the ministry and leadership of the laity. How ironic that at this time in history the ELCA is focused on the ordained clergy, and especially on the role of bishops. CCM is not the result of lay initiation. It has been altogether a "top-down" effort.

It is haunting to think the ELCA may have learned nothing from the bitter experiences of a sister Lutheran church. A group with a particular viewpoint came into control of the administrative machinery of the church. Managing to control the convention votes they established "their" viewpoint as the law of the church and began enforcing the law with legalistic fervor. They let it be known that dissenters had only three options, namely, agree with the new requirement, keep quiet, or get out. The results were and are devastating, as many present ELCA members can testify. That church's issue was "the historical-critical method." The ELCA's issue is the "historic episcopate." The parallels are too close for comfort. God grant that the ELCA will not produce a similar set of requirements that will be an ongoing source of contention. God knows we are able to do better.

The recognition of radical departures has led many to join in forming a WordAlone Network. The network seeks full participation in the ELCA for those clergy, congregations, and synods who cannot submit to the required ordination into an historic episcopate. I hope you will be active participants in the WordAlone Network, which requires no departure from Lutheran teaching or history or practice. I look forward to an ELCA that makes room for the same variety of ministries that is represented in current U.S. Lutheran life. I believe the WordAlone Network, whatever it is called, will help us get there. God grant it may be so. Amen.