Useful and Substantive Contribution
by Richard E. Koenig
Wright's article is clear, comprehensive, and cogent in its understanding of the historic episcopacy.
On the day following the unsuccessful vote on the Concordat of Agreement at Philadelphia in 1997, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's Churchwide Assembly pledged itself to an intensive study of polity, practice, and history of the Episcopal Church. The measure was intended to aid the ELCA in its consideration of a revised document recommending full communion with the Episcopal Church at its next biennial assembly in Denver in 1999.
Canon J. Robert Wright's address at Luther Seminary in July 1998, makes a useful and substantive contribution to us in the ELCA in our study of the issues.
Taken as a whole, Canon's Wright's presentation on the Episcopal Church and the historic episcopate is clear, comprehensive, and cogent, marked throughout by civility and courtesy.
From his long participation in the Lutheran-Episcopal Dialogue, Wright is acutely aware of the questions and debates that the original Concordat of Agreement provoked within the ELCA. He has cast his material accordingly, especially in respect to the issue of the historic episcopate, the traditional sticking point for Lutherans in attempts to bring Episcopalians and Lutherans together in full communion.
In registering his dissent against the first draft of the revised Concordat which bears the title Called to Common Mission, Professor Todd Nichol of Luther Seminary made the oft-asserted claim that by accepting the historic episcopate for full communion with the Episcopal Church, Lutherans would violate Article 7 of the Augsburg Confession. Article 7 says that the preaching of the pure gospel and right administration of the sacraments are "sufficient for the true unity of the Christian Church."
Wright counters this argument with a "respectful" reply that says "with us [the historic episcopate] is not a condition added to the gospel but a condition for the unity of the church already implicit in Article 7." In making this argument, Wright is appealing to the near unanimous consensus of theologians and scholars that the Lutheran Confessions presuppose the historic episcopate as the church's polity and, in Melanchthon's words in the Apology, manifest a "deep desire" to maintain it.
But Wright's argument implies a distinction that I believe has been consistently overlooked in this debate: the distinction between that which is required for churches to recognize each other as true Christian churches and that which is required for the implementation of visible unity between these churches.
The Episcopal Church, says Wright, has no questions regarding the authenticity of the ELCA as a true Christian Church. That has already been demonstrated in the agreement on an interim sharing of the Eucharist and is reaffirmed in the Concordat and Called to Common Mission. But if the ELCA and the Episcopal Church are to engage in an exchange of ministers in a visible manifestation of their unity under full communion, the Episcopal Church then deems it necessary for both churches to enjoy the historic episcopate.
The historic episcopate, therefore, is a condition not for a Church's participation in the una sancta ecclesia of the Creeds, but for the practice of pulpit and altar fellowship, to use a traditional Lutheran term.
We in the ELCA do exactly the same thing. We recognize a church body such as, say, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod as a true church. But in the (sadly) unlikely event that pulpit and altar fellowship would be under consideration by our two churches, we in the ELCA would insist, as a condition of such a relation, that the ordained ministry be open to women.
Women's ordination is a non-negotiable for us. Yet, the ordination of women is certainly neither included nor implied in the doctrinal articles of the Augsburg Confession. It finds no foundation in our confessions, but has become part of our polity, we believe, by the leading of the Holy Spirit with great blessings for us.
Churches throughout the oikumene exhibit such practices. This is what makes ecumenical work so difficult. The analogy with the Missouri Synod breaks down, however, at the point of reception. By virtue of its interpretation of Scripture, the LC-MS is not free to accept women's ordination.
According to the reading of most theologians of the ELCA, the ELCA is free to accept the historic episcopate without violating either Scripture or its confessional commitment.
Is the historic episcopate worth the struggle over its acceptance by our church? For many, most notably Martin E. Marty, chair of the drafting committee for Called to Common Mission,
for the sake of the visible unity of the church, the answer is an emphatic yes.
At the terminus of a strife-filled millennium which has left the Christian Church in shards, and perplexed at the massive cultural changes that have come upon them, Christians holding the great Tradition recognize their need for fellowship with one another to maintain their hold on the gospel and further their witness in love and service.
But I think the historic episcopate also bears an intrinsic value that commends it to us. Wright defines the historic episcopate this way:
The historic episcopate is a succession of bishops or church leaders whose roots are planted in the time of the early church, pointing back to the centrality of Christ and the teaching of the apostles, pointing to the biblical canon, the creeds, and the councils, while at the same time pointing forward in order to oversee, or superintend, or give leadership to the mission of the church today.
The historic episcopate he says, quoting Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry, is "a 'sign though not a guarantee' in personal terms of the unity and continuity of the church. It is still accepted and practiced by some three-fourths of the world's Christians."
For Lutherans with a truncated view of history and a restricted theological universe, bounded primarily by the Reformation and the Confessions, opening themselves up to acceptance of the historic episcopate and the churches who hold it can be unsettling. But that is precisely the value of serious ecumenical engagement. It compels us to expand our ecclesiastical horizons as we enter in upon the new world of the 21st century. At the same time, in this engagement we have gifts to offer, something that full communion will make possible as never before.
Wright himself has testified to his "own renewed appreciation for this doctrine [justification by faith],...that I gained over the course of the ecumenical dialogue with your church." (Editor: This was cited from Wright's introduction, which the magazine did not have space to include in his article beginning on p. 20)
Wright's paper in its entirety would make for excellent congregational and pastoral study. It will be particularly helpful for those who are attending our next Churchwide Assembly as members, not only for its substance but also for its calm and courteous tone, so different from the fevers that continue to mar our Lutheran exchanges.
My prayer is that we emerge from Denver as one church, united as an ELCA in love and joy as we seek to widen the circle of those with whom we are in full communion to the glory of the one Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Richard E. Koenig is a retired ELCA pastor, living in Millbury, Massachusetts.