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Who are the extremists in the CCM struggle?

Marc Kolden (Academic Dean of Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN)

Summer, 2000

Reprinted with permission from Dialog: A Journal of Theology, 39:2, Summer 2000, pp.145-148.

During the past three years ELCA leaders often have characterized the opponents of the Concordat and now CCM as "extremists." Despite the fact that the most visible representatives of the anti-CCM movement have been well-established Lutheran leaders (former church presidents Robert Marshall and David Preus, former Minnesota governor Al Quie, several former and present ELCA bishops, many tenured seminary professors, respected pastors, and tested lay leaders) the church press was able to keep the extremist caricature alive through the time of the 1999 ELCA assembly at which CCM was approved.

Since that time, however, as opposition has grown and spread and become better organized, the serious theological/confessional basis for the opposition has begun to be recognized-not least by some pro-CCM synod bishops who find widespread dissent and articulate opposition from some of their best pastors and laity. (Significantly, most national leaders have continued to patronize the opponents by suggesting that they need to be treated "pastorally.")

It was some synod bishops who led the way in organizing the unofficial meeting of supporters and opponents of CCM that was held in Milwaukee in mid-February to see if they could point a way beyond the present impasse. Four of the five bishops who were present favored CCM. Of the total participants seven were opponents and eleven were supporters of CCM. The group included bishops, churchwide staff, seminary professors, parish pastors, ELCA church council members (lay and clergy), and one or two others.

From the beginning it was obvious that nearly all participants in Milwaukee were troubled by the growing divisions in the ELCA over CCM and genuinely wanted to find a way forward. We were assisted during the three days by an outside firm that had been engaged to facilitate discussion. As an opponent, I came to the meeting mostly out of duty, skeptical about the process, and pessimistic about possible results.

It was three days of difficult and often painful and frustrating work. The facilitators' main roles were setting an agenda that got everyone involved both in the plenary sessions and in three smaller groups and, secondly, keeping us working-from early morning until into the evening and during all but one meal. Given who the participants were, I don't think that the facilitators could have manipulated the group to a particular outcome (as some have charged).

The short statement we produced, now known as the "Common Ground Resolution" (CGR), was more than I had expected us to be able to agree on. The fact that all five bishops supported it is most significant, since their responsibilities are surely more difficult with regard to this issue than are those of most of the rest of the participants. I think those bishops' support reflects their close connection to the grass roots of the ELCA.

What the CGR proposes is that the ELCA build into its constitution and organizational structures a way to symbolize the theological non-necessity of the historic episcopate while still maintaining a way to have full communion with the Episcopal Church. The opponents' point throughout this debate has not been that Lutherans cannot adopt some forms of the historic episcopate; it is rather that opponents have asserted the Confessional teaching that no single form of polity (or liturgy or piety or lifestyle, for that matter) can be required for Christian unity in addition to agreement on the means of grace.

The CGR suggest two possibilities: 1) that synods and bishops-elect be allowed not to become part of the historic episcopate system and that seminarians not be required to be ordained only by bishops in historic succession; or 2) that there be a non-geographical synod within the ELCA that would not include the historic episcopate for its bishop or for the ordination of new pastors. Either possibility would insure that the historic episcopate in the ELCA is not a theological necessity since it would not be required of all bishops and pastors.

To me, the non-geographical synod possibility is less attractive than the first option because it would create a separate body within the ELCA that could become very large and create problems for geographical synods in areas where it was strong. It might have more appeal for the Episcopalians, however, since they have some experience with such arrangements (for example, dioceses for native or aboriginal people in some Anglican communions).

The CGR is not primarily a theological proposal, in any case, but a practical solution for what has become a practical and political problem: how to keep the ELCA from coming apart over full communion with the Episcopal Church. Of course it involves some things that would change CCM and would require actions by the ELCA church council and the next churchwide assembly. That was the whole point of the Milwaukee meeting: finding common ground between the two opposing groups and positions-which likely would require compromises and changes.

After the CGR was published, some pro-CCM members of the ELCA immediately protested any and all possibility of changes because "the church has voted." That is not an adequate reason, however, because except for the Confession of Faith portion of the ELCA constitution anything else can be voted on and changed. A wise church will reexamine its decisions if they seem to be falling short of their intended purposes or if new data or arguments call for it. This even could include delaying the implementation of CCM, as the CGR calls for.

A second objection voiced to the CGR was that it would force the Episcopal Church to reject full communion with the ELCA. I take this to be a serious objection. Of the eighteen people at Milwaukee, all or nearly all wanted to find a resolution that both would bring the ELCA together and bring the ELCA and the Episcopal Church together. The Episcopal Church has proved that it is able to deal with considerable variety in its own ranks and it surely does not want to be the occasion for schism in the ELCA. It is not impossible that a way could be found to reach some common ground both within the ELCA and between the ELCA and the Episcopal Church.

I don't think we Lutherans have really asked the Episcopal Church to accommodate itself to our present difficulties. This is largely because it has been some Lutherans who have been insisting on the historic episcopate since even before the formation of the ELCA; they have been using the Episcopalians to press their point since they couldn't achieve it through the ELCA's Study on Ministry. As a practical solution, the CGR is broad and flexible enough to provide plenty of ELCA clergy who would be available for ministry with the Episcopal Church and still keep the ELCA together. Polity ought not to be a church-dividing matter for either side.

Owing to already scheduled meetings of several groups, the CGR was considered first by the ELCA Conference of Bishops in early March. The bishops took no action on the Resolution but did spend a great deal of time debating it. If nothing else, the seriousness of the divisions within the ELCA became more widely acknowledged among them. The pastoral letter that the bishops issued was not a direct response to CGR and fell far short of offering anything that opponents of CCM could accept.

The next group to consider the CGR was the WordAlone (WA) constituting convention in late March. With over one thousand persons from perhaps thirty states registered for the four-day event of those opposed to CCM, a resolution was proposed that WA vote to commend the CGR as a helpful step toward greater unity in the ELCA and to ask that the ELCA Church Council take steps at its April 2000 meeting to place the CGR on the 2001 churchwide assembly agenda. Following vigorous discussion it was passed (on a voice vote) by a sizeable majority of the 698 actual voting members. This put WA on record as seeking a reasonable and responsible solution to the divisions brought about by CCM.

As I am writing in late March, there are several variables coming in April and May that make it difficult to predict what the situation will be like when this is published. It seems unlikely to me that the ELCA church council will take any action at its April meeting, since the presiding bishop seems to be set on forging ahead without any compromise. The synod assemblies are another story, however, with perhaps as many as twenty of them bringing resolutions against CCM as well as specific proposals for remaining "H. E. Free," as some are calling it. In the first synod assembly to take place in the spring of 2000, the Eastern North Dakota passed resolutions calling for its congregations, individual members, pastors, new seminary graduates, and its bishop to be free to choose either to be part of the historic episcopate system or to remain outside of it, while still being fully part of the ELCA. In at least one other synod, a new bishop may be elected under an explicit mandate that he/she will not be installed according to CCM.

Such actions could lead to a much more fluid or even chaotic situation by the time the Episcopal Church meets in convention. Nevertheless, ELCA leaders will spare no effort to convince the Episcopalians that the ELCA is of one mind about CCM and the Episcopalians will probably approve it in any case.

As opposition to CCM has grown and as the WA becomes more of a national effort, it has been interesting to see how strident some of CCM's chief defenders have become. One of CCM's principal authors has attacked the CGR (a product, remember, of a group that had a majority of CCM supporters, and which was drafted chiefly by bishops), saying that it would undermine the ELCA constitution and destroy our relations with the Episcopal Church. He sees the proposal as a "clandestine maneuver" that abandons the idea that it is the church that ordains. So sure of his ground that he said before the 1999 ELCA assembly that the opponents of CCM would have to answer for their stance on judgment day, he now can recommend only an "amicable parting of the ways" rather than any effort to seek common ground.

A colleague-at-arms has gone even further, writing now not as a Lutheran theologian (although he teaches at a Lutheran seminary) but, he says, as an "ecumenical theologian," he accuses opponents of practicing "open trickery" which "would mean the end of constitutional order in the ELCA." Rising to a height of frenzy, he says the CGR espouses "mob rule" and "arbitrary executive government." The ELCA he desires is one that will "mature into a coherent ecclesial body . . . capable of authoritative action," while he sees the CGR as making "a shambles of our life together" and seeking to liberate "the individual from the community faith."

His tirade continues by calling for all ELCA pastors to submit to the church's order and discipline. Then he makes a sharp distinction between the opponents and "the rest of the church." He accuses the opponents(!) of not wanting to work for theological solutions and says that the CGR "would prohibit us from having any normative commitments at all."

He rightly sees that the present struggle actually is a conflict about the gospel, but he wrongly thinks that the opponents are not driven precisely by their Confessional commitment to the gospel. He says that being true to the gospel is more important than unity, with which most Lutherans would agree; but by that he means that CCM speaks the truth and that unity with the Episcopal Church is more important that unity within the ELCA. "It may be time for the rest of us," he concludes, to " . . . begin thinking through what would be required for a parting of the ways." He wants to do this with "utmost generosity" that would even look forward to eventual reconciliation. His generosity does not extend to accurately understanding and fairly presenting the views of the opponents to CCM, however.

Webster's speaks of an "extremist" as one who takes drastic actions or resorts to desperate means and as being fanatical in the sense of going beyond the limits of reason. Who are the extremists in the present struggle if CCM has to be defended with such intemperate rhetoric? And, if a "sect" is a separate and exclusive religious body that accepts only religiously qualified persons, would not "sectarian" be an appropriate label for those who invite other believers to leave so that "the rest of us" can get on with the journey toward a coherent ecclesial body?

These defenders of ecumenicity for the ELCA seem to be more sectarian than ecumenical and much more extreme than the authors of the CGR. Most of us who are opponents want to be together with everyone else in the ELCA and with the Episcopalians. The extreme supporters of CCM seem to want to be free from all persons in the ELCA with whom they disagree -- perhaps a much larger group than they realize! -- in order to be together with the Episcopal Church.

In light of all this, it seems to me that the presiding bishop of the ELCA is faced with the most difficult decision of his career. When he began his term the ELCA was poised to move forward in mission and service, after having completed its first eight years of putting a complex merger into place as well as dealing with the contentious issues that it chose to address. What will this presiding bishop's legacy be? That he led a united and strengthened ELCA forward to face the challenges God has for us in the twenty-first century? Or that he squandered all of this in an extreme pursuit of a single misguided ecumenical proposal and left the ELCA deeply divided and discouraged, adrift and bereft of the loyalty and trust of a large number of its members?

God's will will be done, as Martin Luther taught us. We pray that it will be done also among us.