Reflections on Church Unity and Bishop Hanson’s Letter

Yesterday the Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America released a letter on Christian unity as our church prepares for a potentially divisive biennial churchwide assembly next month.

My thoughts: This letter is essentially about baptismal unity, which is truly a blessed gift of God.  By our baptism into Christ Jesus, we are made one body.  From the Bishop's letter:

We hold in common this confession that God makes us one in Jesus Christ, but it is not making this confession that makes us one. Rather, because God unites us to Jesus Christ in Baptism we are also united to each other in one body that transcends any other difference. Paul states this clearly. “For in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ” (Galatians 3:26-27).

The Bishop's reflections on baptismal unity for the life of the church are helpful, but I fear that they are not enough.  When I was ordained I didn't pledge fidelity to my baptismal covenant, but to a particular church, tradition, and set of teachings.  Though the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America professes to be part of "one, holy, catholic and apostolic church," we nonetheless recognize that within that one universal church we maintain a particular discipline and practice as a communion in the Lutheran tradition.  In matters of denominational unity we cannot appeal to baptismal unity only … for baptismal unity is something that we share with all Christians who baptize in the name of the Triune God, but it doesn't speak to the legitimate concerns and challenges facing denominational traditions and structures today.

In its ecumenical relationships and aspirations the ELCA seeks more than a unity based on a common baptism in Christ. Before entering into a full communion relationship with another denomination, we seek to develop a shared language of faith, and some sort of reconciliation of theological tenets and/or liturgical practice. Our church's goal has been some sort of visible unity, expressed (in part, anyway) through structural means.  We can argue about the merits of this agenda, but working toward visible unity is the policy of our church, a means of putting our "spiritual" unity into practice.

I wonder if in this letter Bishop Hanson asks less of Lutherans (a baptismal unity) than the ELCA regularly asks of itself in discipline and order (fidelity to Lutheran confessions and liturgical practice)?  Is he expecting less of us than we expect of our ecumenical partners in full communion agreements (a visible unity based on liturgical pracitce and structural relationships)?  How does this letter compare with our church's ecumenical agenda?

I fear that this letter speaks to a "spiritual" unity which, on this side of the Kingdom of God, is not enough to keep the church together.  We have confessions and constitutions, traditions and disciplines, all of which are designed to be expressions of and servants to the church and the Gospel it proclaims.  The Bishop should have also appealed to these elements of our tradition in calling the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America to unity, for even if our church splits this summer, we will continue to be united to Christ and to each other by baptism.  But is that what we want, a split in which separated brethren can claim baptismal unity but who no longer will strive together for the greater gifts? I don't think so.

As members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, we must expect more of ourselves than baptismal unity.  For though our life together as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is a gift of God, it is also a practice of discipline and mutual admonition that requires carefull attention given to our confessions, tradition, and governance practices. I'm not sure that, in preparation for this year's potentially divisive churchwide assembly, we've sufficiently mined our tradition and our teachings to articulate what unity looks like in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.  Denominational unity is a delicate dance that traverses both of God's kingdoms, and demands attention given to the needs of both.  Have we done that?  I'm not sure.  (As time permits, I'll examine our ELCA Constitution and offer some reflections on denominational unity in future posts.)

Though I think that Bishop Hanson's letter missed the mark with this letter, I do not expect our church to rupture this summer. I'm not sure that August will be our church's shining moment, but I don't expect it to be our worst, either.  Let us hope.  Let us pray.

About Chris Duckworth

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. National Guardsman. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.
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2 Responses to Reflections on Church Unity and Bishop Hanson’s Letter

  1. Robb says:

    I don’t see us rupturing, but I do foresee a slow and steady exodus from the ELCA. I’ve already had parishioners tell me that if the policy changes pass, that they will leave. I also know of at least 4 churches in our conference (including two large ones) that will bring the option of leaving to their congregation. We’ve been losing folks for a long time, and I fear that we will see a hastening of departures.
    With that said, I think you are right on concerning the content of your critique. I would push it a step: how can I vow to uphold the faith and order of the ELCA as presented in our constituting documents if those can be changed? Furthermore, why do we want to circle the wagons now, when the truth is MOST ELCA pastors find things in the confessions with which they disagree? How many believe in the Virgin Birth? Our the bodily resurrection? I myself have long thought CA XXI is an article to be rejected. So in a certain sense, we are all liars when we take those vows.
    Maybe the issue has nothing to do with sexuality at all…maybe we have a sincere crisis of Lutheran belief and identity.

  2. Craig says:

    I had not seen that letter from Bishop Hanson until today. I was left wanting more.
    I know of several churches that already have their “walking papers” already filled out and will turn them in depending on the vote in August.
    While I secretly wish I could be a fly on the wall during the vote, I am relieved that I will not be at Churchwide.

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