What would Luther do?

National | Conservative Lutherans on the verge of revolt over ELCA unity pact with Episcopalians

Issue: "Back to no future," April 22, 2000

Martin Luther and fellow Reformers in the 16th century jettisoned the corrupt politics of the historic episcopate-the belief that bishops take their authority from an unbroken line of succession clear back to the disciples of Jesus. But now the issue is back, and it is straining the seams of the 5.2 million-member Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the mainline Lutheran body. The bone of contention is "Called to Common Mission" (CCM), a proposed unity pact with the 2.4 million-member Episcopal Church. The Chicago-based ELCA rejected it in 1997, but under continuous pressure from ecumenists, the CCM was pushed through at last year's biennial Churchwide Assembly by a narrow margin. It is to be implemented next Jan. 1. Among other things, it calls for mutual recognition of ministries: Clergy from either denomination can be pastors of churches in either one. However, it requires the ELCA to adopt the historic episcopate as understood and practiced by the Episcopal Church (and, by implication, the Catholic Church). Future ELCA bishops, who function as regional executive ministers, will have to be consecrated by other bishops in the historic succession. Bishops will be required at ordinations of ELCA ministers to lay on hands to impart special authority, a concept Lutherans traditionally have rejected. ELCA lay people can be licensed to celebrate communion only in "unusual circumstances on rare occasions." Under CCM, the ELCA can continue to accept clergy from other denominations without reordaining them, but they will not be "fully interchangeable." This means the ELCA in effect would have two clergy rosters. Ironically, no provision is made for ELCA clergy who by conscience cannot accept the new order. Some ELCA leaders, including Presiding Bishop H. George Anderson, have counseled such clergy and seminarians to leave the ELCA. Episcopalians, who will vote on CCM in July, tentatively have agreed to suspend their rules momentarily to "grandfather" in all current ELCA bishops and other clergy. Opposition to CCM within the ELCA is building. The ELCA Conference of Bishops on March 6 took notice of the widespread concerns in a pastoral letter. While urging complete support for ecumenical relations with the Episcopal Church, it urged that ways also be explored to allow for exceptions to the bishops-at-ordinations requirement. A large group known as WordAlone Network was constituted officially last month to fight CCM's implementation. It includes many influential seminary professors and other ELCA leaders-and could be the core of a new denomination if CCM causes schism in the ELCA, as many leaders and members predict. More than 1,000 people from 30 states attended a WordAlone rally in Minnesota at the end of March. Speaker David Preus, former presiding bishop of the American Lutheran Church, one of the two main partner churches that merged to create the ELCA, warned that CCM is a radical departure from the Lutheran faith. It goes against the "priesthood of all believers" and sets up a caste system in the church, he said. Theologian Michael Rogness warned that CCM creates a hierarchy of ministry and diminished role of laity within Lutheranism that never has existed before. Privately, some at the meeting pointed to the sorry spectacle in the Episcopal Church of radical unbelieving bishops presiding at ordinations as evidence of the kind of corruption CCM supports. On March 24, the ELCA's regional Eastern North Dakota synod voted 436-57 to "fully support the right of its constituent members, congregations, pastors, and bishops to freely accept or reject local implementation of an historic episcopate." The action sent shockwaves throughout the ELCA establishment: 64 more regional synods would hold their annual meetings in coming weeks; a strong message was needed to keep the revolt from spreading. Gathered at O'Hare Airport April 8-9, the ELCA's 37-member Church Council in effect ruled that the synod's resolution was out of order. It said ecumenical commitments made by the Churchwide Assembly cannot be legislated on a synod-by-synod basis. It also warned sternly that regional synods may not advocate disobedience of denominational decisions. The council, a mixture of clergy and lay people, declined to address the bishops' pastoral letter or a statement from Wartburg Seminary faculty calling for "evangelical freedom" in CCM implementation, and it refused to allow WordAlone leaders to speak. The stage has been set for schism, WordAlone spokesman Christopher Hershman told WORLD. "There has been a hostile takeover" of the ELCA. Freedom-limiting CCM "is the same to us as a Confederate flag is to African Americans," former Minnesota governor Al Quie had told the WordAlone assembly. "We have to be historic-episcopate free." Martin Luther would have agreed. Clubbed in Utah
As Kendra Ruzicka and other conservative students at a Utah college campus worked on plans to organize a chapter of the Eagle Forum Collegians, they had reason to worry. The school, Utah Valley State College, had a policy that campus clubs be open to all students, specifically including gays and lesbians. To Miss Ruzicka and her friends, the policy posed a threat: Homosexuals were free to infiltrate and disrupt or stifle the club, which, among other things, stands against radical feminist and gay-lesbian agendas. Surely, they reasoned, state and federal law would not compel the group to admit members who engaged in immoral sexual behavior. (Eagle Forum Collegians was founded in 1993 by conservative author and broadcaster Phyllis Schlafly. She said conservative students needed to be heard among the "liberalism, multiculturalism, diversity, and radical feminism" on college and university campuses.) So Miss Ruzicka and her lawyer, Matthew Hilton, requested an exemption from the college's policy. And in a letter to the state attorney general, they questioned its constitutionality. They claimed it would subvert members' First Amendment rights of association, speech, and religious exercise. They got their answer late last month. Attorney General Jan Graham informed them the policy was "based upon sound, compelling reasons" and would be enforced. Officials in her office said if the group refuses to adopt a more inclusive policy, it could still have access to campus facilities, but not as an officially sanctioned club with access to funds from student fees. Miss Ruzicka and Mr. Hilton are pondering what to do next. In last month's U.S. Supreme Court ruling that upheld the University of Wisconsin's student-fee policies, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote: "It is inevitable that government will adopt and pursue programs within its constitutional powers but which nevertheless are contrary to the profound beliefs and sincere convictions of some of its citizens. The government, as a general rule, may support valid programs and policies by taxes or other exactions binding on protesting parties." Evangelicals overboard
Eleven Navy chaplains filed a class action suit against the U.S. Navy last month, claiming it discriminates against evangelical chaplains. The plaintiffs allege the Navy brass runs a "religious patronage system" that favors Catholics and mainstream Protestants. They accuse the Navy of pursuing an unofficial "thirds" policy: one-third Catholic chaplains, one-third mainline Protestant, and one-third everyone else. (The Navy's chaplains come from more than 100 denominations and faith groups.) The suit also alleges that deserving evangelicals often are passed over for promotions, forced to retire early, removed after their congregations double or triple in size, and lectured on pluralism by superiors when they mention "Jesus" in sermons and prayers. The suit cites studies and internal Navy documents. Of 871 Navy chaplains, 34 percent are mainline Protestant, although just 9 percent of sailors and Marines identified themselves in a 1998 survey as belonging to such a church. A naval panel investigated in 1997 and found that the chaplain promotion board "may have systematically applied a denominational quota system." A 1995 report by the chief chaplain assigned to the Marine Corps said that during a 15-year period he studied, only 14 evangelical chaplains had been chosen for the top 119 leadership posts. Navy spokesmen denied quotas exist and insisted that promotions are based on best-qualified-person criteria. A group of Pentecostal chaplains filed a similar suit against the Navy last November. Both suits seek reform, not damages. Justice, at last
Maryland minister Pierre Bynum used to lead "prayer tours" on Capitol Hill in Washington. He would explain to delegations of visitors, many of them church-related groups, the significance of people and events memorialized by statues, paintings, inscriptions, and the like in the Capitol Rotunda and elsewhere. At some displays, the group would bow, fold hands, and quietly reflect or pray for the country. But in November 1996, after about 30 prayer tours, Capitol police told him such prayer was an illegal demonstration, and they threatened to arrest him if he continued. They cited vague regulations that nowhere mentioned prayer. Failing to budge police officials during subsequent negotiations, Pastor Bynum sued. In a 17-page decision released on April 3, federal judge Paul L. Friedman ruled the police curb on prayer is "an impermissible restriction on speech in a public place." The regulations, he said, were aimed at preventing disruptive demonstrations. Speechmaking would be disruptive, but not "quiet praying, accompanied by bowed heads and folded hands." Mr. Bynum, who now heads the Capitol Hill Prayer Alert ministry, said he and his groups will return to the Capitol: "God knows we need prayer for our country."

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Edward E. Plowman
Edward E. Plowman


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