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What makes

—an ecumenical agreement authoritative?

by Michael Rogness (Professor of Preaching, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN)

News: Summer 2000

This piece was written in response to Karen Bloomquist's original essay, "What makes an ecumenical agreement authoritative?"

First, thanks to Dr. Bloomquist for opening the question of church authority to discussion.  It is a crucial topic for us in the ELCA, particularly considering the controversy still lively following the passage of "Called to Common Mission" (CCM).

I also appreciate her proposal that social and cultural factors are often important factors in such controversies.

The problem with her lecture is twofold:

  1. Her reading of the social and cultural factors behind the CCM controversy is fundamentally incorrect, and
  2. She totally ignores the real reason for opposition to CCM, namely the theological reasons.

Dr. Bloomquist begins her lecture with the assertion that "authority within the church has tended to mirror the authority systems within society."  Which church in the USA mirrors the authority systems within our society?  We have highly centralized churches and highly decentralized churches existing side-by-side in American communities across the land.  Clearly that proposition is too generalized to be accurate.

I am confused about the direction of her argument.  Is she claiming that people oppose CCM because episcopacy is more authoritative than our present practice and modern Americans oppose authority?  I would argue people oppose CCM because they do not agree with its proposals about the office of bishop.  These are people who do not find the theory or principle of the historic episcopacy---a practice established during feudal and monarchical historical times where all authority tended to be highly centralized---either in the Bible, nor in the age of the Reformation, nor in the Lutheran confessional writings.  One can either take seriously the biblical, historical and theological arguments of CCM opponents, or one can attribute such arguments to spurious sociological factors and dismiss them on those grounds.  This second course is not helpful to the ELCA.

Dr. Bloomquist then identifies "three themes that permeate North American society [which] deeply affect many people's sense of what it means to be the church" — (1) individualism, which leads to a "masterless self that resists any imposition of authority," (2) localism, which sees "the local congregation [as] the operational equivalent of the church, and (3) voluntarism, where "one chooses which church to belong to, amid a wide array of choices."

Individualism is a favorite whipping boy in contemporary theology, and I too have often joined the chorus.  For many American Protestants the sum and substance of Christian identity is "Jesus and me," with scant awareness of the community of saints.  I believe that the important task in our day is to make clear that Christian identity is a matter both of one's faith and of one's bond with the brothers and sisters in that faith, namely the church.  In my experience opposition to CCM does not arise from the individualism of a "masterless self," but from a love of the church.  These are people who have loved their church body and have been active within it.  It is out of a perception of the church they love which causes them to reject CCM.

If by "localism" one means that the congregation is the heart of the church, then yes, I am a localist.  The treasure of the church is God's gift of salvation in Christ, conveyed in Word and Sacrament, and that is done within congregations.  That's the heart of the church.  However, to argue that this view diminishes one's identity with or the importance of the wider church is simply incorrect.  I grew up in the ELC, which probably belongs in the "localist-congregationalist" camp, yet we knew full well that we belonged to something much, much bigger than our local congregation.  Our church presidents and district presidents were widely loved and respected.  Missionaries on home leave appeared regularly in churches and at practically every Bible camp, and we knew their stories.  I hardly think that regarding congregations as the heart of the church diminishes one's sense of the larger church.

I welcome a thorough discussion on the role of the synods and the churchwide office relating to congregations.  They should operate not at odds with each other, but as close partners.  By and large that was the case in the ELCA's predecessor church bodies and should be the case in the ELCA.  Unfortunately that has not been the case.

There is what I would call a "Vatican" trend in the ELCA, that is, a view which argues that congregations, synods and the national office are "equal partners" with one another, each making decisions appropriate to its level.  Congregations and synods make decisions affecting congregations and synods.  Therefore the churchwide office is that level of the church which makes all major churchwide decisions.  Synods and congregations should comply with such decisions, with no divergence or differences among synods or congregations.  Uniformity is necessary, and local or regional differences are not allowed.  That's what I call a "Vatican" view of the church.  We desperately need thorough discussion on the relationship between congregations, synods and the national office relating to authority.

Voluntarism as defined by Dr. Bloomquist is the fact that American Christians do not identify themselves by denomination as they used to.  So what's the point?  Is this an indication that Americans reject authority?  I think not.  How would one explain that many churches with rapid growth are very authoritative in expecting much from their members?  I think rather it simply reflects the fact that American Christians join churches for a variety of reasons other than denominational identity.  One could well argue that laypeople today are far more ecumenical than clergy and church officials.  Dr. Bloomquist's sociological/cultural analysis may be helpful in helping us understand why Lutherans join other churches when they relocate.

My basic response to Dr. Bloomquist's analysis of the situation in the ELCA is that whenever the national church or a synod advocates or adopts a position not widely shared by its members, one can expect opposition to authority and an erosion of cooperation.

Position papers, studies and recommendations issued and adopted by the ELCA are read by relatively few of the ELCA membership.  They are formulated by committees and processed toward adoption by churchwide offices in Chicago.  They represent a lot of work, and Dr. Bloomquist is correct in pointing out that these committees do distribute their drafts widely and ask for reactions and discussion.  I share her frustration that drafts of these studies and proposals are not read by many beforehand, but the ELCA lays out a timetable which simply does not allow for careful, widespread discussion.People and staff members on such committees work at long length, so their perception is that the topic has been widely engaged.  In their experience it has been discussed a long time.  However people and pastors in the church as a whole are occupied with a lot of other pressing matters and cannot keep up with documents coming from the churchwide office.  In the first decade of the ELCA's existence the churchwide office rushed through major studies before the wider membership became aware of the issues.  It's no wonder that there is displeasure after the fact.

The problem is compounded when the churchwide office repeatedly emphasizes that voting members of the churchwide assembly are not "delegates" from their congregations and synods, and that they need not represent or be influenced by the opinions of their constituencies.  The fact that voting members' votes are secret and that they are not accountable to any future synodical or churchwide assemblies only reinforces the atmosphere of suspicion and mistrust.

Dr. Bloomquist claims that "some of the continuing reactions [to CCM]" illustrate these sociological factors.  Let us look at how she characterizes this opposition:

  • "[CCM] departs from the history of US Lutheran practice regarding ordination of pastors and installations of bishops."  I believe it does, and I base that on theological arguments, not sociological or cultural.
  • "[CCM] makes the structure of historic episcopacy a requirement for full communion."  That's exactly what it does.  According to CCM we can enjoy full communion with other non-episcopal churches (such as the Reformed churches in the Formula of Agreement), but the adoption of the historic episcopate within our church is indeed required to have full communion with the Episcopal Church.  Furthermore, it will be rigidly required, with no exceptions, even among those synods where a majority has asked for such exceptions.  The argument is that uniformity of practice is necessary for the church's integrity.  Diversity is valued when it comes to membership, worship styles, outreach programs, and so on, but not with structures or practice of ministry.
  • "[CCM] intensifies the perception of the church as a Christian caste system.  I don't know what that means.  CCM clearly elevates the ecclesiastical status of the office of bishop, and I would argue that its further implementation will eventually widen the gulf between lay and clergy.  I have never used the term "caste system."
  • "[CCM] is a top down initiative, imposed through managed coercion on the membership."  Yes, I'm guilty of saying something like that, although more nuanced.  Certainly the proposal to adopt the historic episcopate did not come from a ground swell of ELCA grassroots.  Even CCM supporters agree that if the ELCA had voted to adopt the historic episcopacy in and of itself, apart from any agreement with the Episcopal Church, it would have been roundly defeated.  CCM was adopted because people were persuaded it was an ecumenical gesture and would not change our practice or theology of ministry.
  • "[CCM] goes against the societal emphasis on individual authority and responsibility."  The real focus of the issue is not individualism but one's understanding of the nature of the church.  To say that one side is more aware of the wider church than the other is simply not true.
  • "[CCM] threatens the freedom of the Gospel and of the conscience."  For many it does, but this statement needs more response than I can give in this limited space.  For certain, the whole discussion of CCM shifts the attention of the ELCA to matters of structure and the form of ministry, distracting our real attention from the evangelical mission of the church.
  • "[A] confessional Lutheran church stands open to its ecumenical neighbor even while challenging every attempt to subordinate the word to hierarchies and structures."  I've read this statement several times and think I agree with it, although I don't know exactly what Dr. Bloomquist is suggesting as an alternative.  Are CCM opponents unwilling to make changes?  Not at all.  But not to adopt the historic episcopate.
  • "[T]he confessions are like the Declaration of Independence."  I don't know what that statement means or doesn't mean.

Is the Word Alone group "populist, pietist and pragmatist"?  If one puts "the best construction" on defining these terms, the answer is probably yes.  If these terms are understood as pejorative descriptions, then no.  The point is that without further definition such labels are meaningless in the discussion.

Dr. Bloomquist's argument that Lutherans oppose CCM because of "the basic dynamic of class latent in how, in many U.S. communities, Lutherans view Episcopalians…the insidious aspects of class continue to fester beneath the surface."  Pardon me, but this is utter nonsense.  This might have been a factor a few generations ago, when we Lutherans were poor immigrants speaking bad English and working for prosperous Anglo-Saxon Episcopalians.  Looking back in 1957 H. Richard Niebuhr thought as much.  But by now almost all of us American Lutherans speak Dan-Rather-Tom-Brokaw English and are fairly much on the same social scale as Episcopalians.  Socially and culturally I identify with the Episcopalians more than any other church group.  I know a lot of anti-CCM folks, and this convenient sociological explanation is condescending to both Lutherans and Episcopalians.

Granted Dr. Bloomquist limited her comments to non-theological factors.  I wish she would discuss the matter theologically.  The problem is precisely that we have had too little theological discussion here. CCM was sold as an ecumenical document.  It is that, but it is also fundamentally a theological document, and not sufficient attention has been paid to the theological implications of CCM.  That's the frustration of many of us who have opposed CCM.  I grant that we are shaped by the sociology and culture of our histories.  We can understand each other better if we are aware of these histories, but we need to take seriously the theological views which grow out of these various backgrounds.  One cannot dismiss people simply by understanding or explaining their history

I regret that Dr. Bloomquist has included a lot of the stereotypical labels used against those who opposed CCM:

  • "irrational waves of reaction"
  • "misunderstandings of what is proposed"
  • "a truncated sense of what it means to be the Church"
  • "an almost obsessive fear of any structures that might themselves embody ecclesial authority," etc.

These descriptions are neither true nor helpful.  I would welcome the opportunity to talk with Karen Bloomquist personally.  I make this response in good faith, without rancor.  Her experience in the church, on the churchwide staff and now with the Lutheran World Federation, is different from mine (LWF staff 30 years ago to parish to seminary).  We might be adversaries, but we are not enemies, and I expect we would understand each other better if we had the chance.  So please take my response with charity, with forgiveness where necessary and with a mutual concern of both of us for the good of our church!

Michael Rogness serves as Professor of Homiletics at Luther Seminary, Saint Paul, Minnesota.