Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Theology in the ELCA

Carl Braaten is a friend of mine. I lament that I did not have the opportunity to study with him while he taught at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago. Now, however, it is an honor to work with him in the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology which he co-founded with my teacher Robert Jenson and their spouses), and I have the opportunity to learn from in an atmosphere that is much less stressful than it would be if I were his student. Carl is brilliant, insightful, witty (although his wit is drier than the martinis I used to love), and deeply committed to the integrity and well-being of the Christian Church. He really has given himself, heart and soul and mind and strength, to the service of Christ's Church.

I was honored, therefore, to receive from him a copy of an "open letter" he sent to the Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the denomination in which he and I reside. He raises some serious questions about the status of theology within our Church by focussing on the flight of numerous important Lutheran scholars into other faith traditions. I think his comments are bang on and deserve wide distribution. Therefore, I am taking him at his word and interpreting it broadly: I have permissioni to share this letter with anyone I want, so I am posting it, in its entirety, to this blog. Had I any standing within the Church, I would ask to co-sign this letter. So, as I promised in my very first post, I shall aggrandize myself by effectively co-signing it by posting it to my blog.

What follows is Carl Braaten:

An Open Letter to Bishop Mark Hanson
From Carl E. Braaten

The Reverend Dr. Mark Hanson
Bishop, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
8765 West Higgins Road
Chicago, Illinois 60631

Dear Bishop Mark Hanson:

Greetings! I am writing out of a concern I share with others about the
theological state of affairs within the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.The situation might be described as one of “brain drain.” Theologians who have served Lutheranism for many years in various capacities have recently left the ELCA and have entered the Roman Catholic Church or the Orthodox Church in America. Why?

When Jaroslav Pelikan left the ELCA and became a member of the OCA, I felt it was not terribly surprising. After all, he had been reading and writing about the Fathers of Eastern Orthodoxy for so many years, he could quite naturually find himself at home in that tradition, without much explanation. A short time before that Robert Wilken, a leading patristics scholar teaching at the University of Virginia, left the ELCA to become a Roman Catholic. Then other Lutheran theological colleagues began to follow suit. Jay Rochelle, who for many years was my colleague and the chaplain at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago joined the Orthodox Church. Why? Leonard Klein, pastor of a large Lutheran parish in York, Pennsylvania, and former editor of Lutheran Forum and Forum Letter, last year left the ELCA to study for the Roman Catholic priesthood. Why? This year Bruce Marshall, who taught theology for about fifteen years at St. Olaf College and was a long-standing member of the International Lutheran-Orthodox Dialogue, has left the ELCA to enter the Roman Catholic Church. Why? David Fagerberg, formerly professor of religion at Concordia College, although coming from a strong Norwegian Lutheran family, left the ELCA for the Roman Catholic Church, and now teaches at the University of Notre Dame. Reinhard Huetter, a German Lutheran from Erlangen University, came to the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago fifteen years ago to teach theology and ethics, now teaches at Duke Divinity School, and this year became a Roman Catholic. Why? Mickey Mattox, a theologian who recently served at the Lutheran Ecumenical Institute in Strasbourg and now teaches at Marquette University, has recently begun the process of becoming a Roman Catholic. In all these cases the transition involves spouses and children, making it incredibly more difficult. Why are they doing this? Is there a message in these decisions for those who have ears to hear?

All of these colleagues have given candid explanations of their decisions to their families, colleagues, and friends. While the individuals involved have provided a variety of reasons, there is one thread that runs throughout the stories they tell. It is not merely the pull of Orthodoxy or Catholicism that enchants them, but also the push from the ELCA, as they witness with alarm the drift of their church into the morass of what some have called Liberal Protestantism. They are convinced that the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has become just another liberal protestant denomination. Hence, they have decided that they can no longer be a part of that. Especially, they say, they are not willing to raise their children in a church that they believe has lost its moorings in the great tradition of evangelical (small e) and catholic (small c) orthodoxy (small o), which was at the heart of Luther’s reformatory teaching and the Lutheran Confessional Writings. They are saying that the Roman Catholic Church is now more hospitable to confessional Lutheran teaching than the church in which they were baptized and confirmed. Can this possibly be true?

I have decided, without any doubt about it, that I could not re-invent myself to become something else than I was raised to be by my Magadascar missionary parents – an heir of the Lutheran confessing movement. Through theological study and ecumenical engagement I thought I had learned something about what it means to be Lutheran. I have written many books and articles, preached and published many sermons – leaving a long paper trail – over a period of five decades, explaining what it means to be Lutheran. There is nothing in all of those communications that accommodates liberal prostestantism, which Karl Barth called a “heresy,” an assessment with which I fully agree. If it is true that the ELCA has become just another liberal protestant denomination, that is a condition tantamount to heresy. The most damning thing in my view that can be charged against the ELCA is that it is just another liberal protestant denomination. Are all these theologians wrong in their assessment of the ELCA? I wish I could deny it. I have been looking for some convincing evidence to the contrary, because I am not about to cut and run. There is no place I know of where to go. I do know, however, that the kind of Lutheranism that I learned – from Nygren, Aulen, Bring, Pinomaa, Schlink, P. Brunner, Bonhoeffer, Pannenberg, Piepkorn, Quanbeck, Preus, and Lindbeck, not to mention the pious missionary teachers from whom I learned the Bible, the Catechism, and the Christian faith -- and taught in a Lutheran parish and seminary for many years is now marginalized to the point of near extinction. In looking for evidence that could convincingly contradict the charge that the ELCA has become just another liberal protestant denomination, it would seem reasonable to examine what is produced by its publishing house, theological schools, magazines, publications, church council resolutions, commission statements, task force recommendations, statements and actions by its bishops. The end result is an embarrassment; there is not much there to refute the charge. As Erik Petersen said about 19h century German Protestantism, all that is left of the Reformation heritage is the aroma from an empty bottle. A lot of the pious piffle remains, but then, so was Adolf von Harnack a pious man. All the heretics of the ancient church were pious men. Our pastors and laity are being deceived by a lot of pietistic aroma, but the bottle is empty. Just ask these fine theologians – all friends and colleagues of mine – who have left the ELCA. They are not stupid people; they don’t tell lies; they don’t make rash decisions. They are all serious Christians. What is happening is nothing less than a tragedy. The ELCA is driving out the best and the brightest theologians of our day, not because it is too Lutheran, but because it has become putatively just another liberal protestant denomination. I would think that this is a situation that ought to concern you immensely as well as all the leadership cadres of the ELCA. But might it also be the case that the very persons who ought to be troubled by this phenomenon will say to themselves (perhaps not out loud), “good riddance, we won’t be bothered by those dissenting voices anymore? We wish more of their ilk would leave.”

I must tell you that I read all your episcopal letters that come across my desk. But I must also tell you that your stated convictions, punctuated by many pious sentiments, are not significantly distinguishable from those that come from the liberal protestant leaders of other American denominations. I do not disagree with your political leaning to the left. I am a life-long political liberal, unlike many of my friends. My wife and I opposed the unjust war against Vietnam in the 60’s and 70’s, and we have with equal conviction opposed the foolhardy invasion of Iraq by the Bush administration. We also supported the ELCA in its ecumenical actions to re-institute the episcopal office by means of passing the CCM as well as to adopt the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification with the Vatican. But none of that equates with transforming Lutheranism into a liberal protestant denomination, in terms of doctrine, worship, and morality.

When I finished my graduate studies at Harvard and Heidelberg, I was ordained by the ELC and served a parish in North Minneapolis, simultaneously teaching at Luther Seminary. At that time I was instrumental in founding Dialog, a journal of theology, together with Robert Jenson, Roy Harrisville, Kent Knutson, James Burtness, and others, in order to draw midwest Lutheranism into the world-wide orbit of Lutheran theology. We were not ecumenically oriented at the start. At that time no Luther Seminary professors were dealing with the issues posed by Bultmann, Tillich, Bonhoeffer, Barth, Brunner, Aulen, Nygren and many others. Dialog got the reputation of being a journal edited by young upstarts who thought they knew better. It seemed to us then that most of our professors were not very well informed. But they were good Lutherans, not a single heretic among them. Heresy was not the problem at that time. The journal that our group founded in 1961 has now become the voice of a liberal protestant version of Lutheranism. Robert Jenson and I resigned from the journal as its editors in1991 to found a new journal, Pro Ecclesia, a Journal of Catholic and Evangelical Theology. In the last fourteen years we have published the articles of theologians of all traditions – Lutheran, Anglican, Catholic, Evangelical, and Orthodox – exhibiting the truth that we all share common ground in the Great Tradition. The same cannot be said of Dialog anymore. It has become a function of the California ethos of religion and morality, nothing seriously Lutheran about it anymore, except the aroma of an empty bottle. Too bad. I was its editor for twenty years and Jenson for ten years, but now in our judgment it has become, perhaps even unwittingly, the very opposite of what we intended. The journal now expresses its belief that to be prophetic is to become the mouthpiece of the denominational bureaucracy, that is, to attack the few dissenting voices in the ELCA.

One day a church historian will write the history of Lutheranism in America. There will be a few paragraphs trying to explain how the self-destruction of confessional orthodox Lutheranism came about around the turn of the millennium and how it underwent a metamorphosis into a liberal protestant denomination. Recently in an issue of the Lutheran Magazine you expressed your hope that Lutherans could some day soon celebrate Holy Communion with Roman Catholics. My instant reaction was: it is becoming less and less likely, as the ELCA is being taken hostage by forces alien to the solid traditions Lutherans share with Roman Catholics. The confessional chasm is actually becoming wider. So much for the JDDJ! The agreement becomes meaningless when Lutheranism embarks on a trajectory that leads to rank antinomianism.

Where do we go from here? I am going nowhere. Meanwhile, I am hearing rumors about a possible schism or something about the formation of a dissenting synod. None of that will redound to the benefit of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church we confess in the Creed. Each person and congregation will do what they deem fitting and appropriate in view of the apostasy that looms on the horizon of our beloved Lutheran Church. My friend Wolfhart Pannenberg has stated that a church that cannot take the Scriptures seriously is no longer a church that belongs to Jesus Christ. That is not an original statement of his or mine, but one said by every orthodox theologian in the Great Tradition, including Athanasius and Augustine, as well as Martin Luther and John Calvin. Does the ELCA take the Scriptures seriously? We will soon find out. Whoever passes the issue off as simply a hermeneutical squabble is not being honest – “we have our interpretation and you have yours.” Who is to judge who is right? The upshot is ecclesiastical anarchy, sometimes called pluralism. To each his own. Chacun son gout!

I am extremely sorry it has come to this doctrinally unstable situation in the church I was ordained to serve almost half a century ago. My father and two of his brothers served this church in Madagascar and China. My brother and sister served this church in the Camaroons and Madagascar. My cousins have served this church as ordained ministers in this country and abroad for decades. Knowing them as well as I do, I am confident in stating their belief that this church in some of its expressions is not remaining truly faithful to the kind of promises they made upon their ordination to the Christian ministry.

Can the situation which I have described in stark terms be remedied? Have we reached the point of no return? Are we now hopelessly mired in what Karl Barth identified as “Kulturprotestantismus?” I know of about half a dozen Lutheran renewal groups desperately trying to call the ELCA back to its foundational texts and traditions. Would they exist if there were no problem that needs to be addressed? How many congregations and pastors have left or are leaving the ELCA for other associations?

One day we will have to answer before the judgment seat of God as to what we have done for and against the Church of Jesus Christ. There will be no one by our side to help us find the words to use in response. All of us will have many things for which to repent and to implore God’s forgiveness. And we will all cry out, “Lord, have mercy!”

Sincerely in Christ our Lord,
Carl E. Braaten

Monday, July 11, 2005

Should there be church buildings?

I participate in a listserv that deals with liturgical issues. Recently, a participant raised some questions about church buildings that excited me. But I have decided to rehearse my response here, rather than to offer a reply that will be too long for anyone to want to read.

The listserv member asked these questions:

Why build identifiably ecclesiastic buildings? Worship spaces are often occupied for less time per week than most other buildings, and their construction and maintenance are a great expense. Do they in any way improve the living of a Christian life? Could they be, instead, cultural expressions, even boasting in stone, that one's group is more important or impressive than another's?

Now, those are questions to warm the heart of a progressive socialist, such as I am. (OK, there it is: I am out of the closet!) The use of the Church’s resources for elaborate buildings, for expensive art and grand vestments and paraments, precious vessels and the like – this has often stung my heart: To spend $2,000 on a chasuble, when there are people sitting on our front steps who can’t afford to eat – that seems wrong.

It seems terrible stewardship, doesn’t it?, to design and build “plants” (as some pastors call their buildings) that stand mostly unused during the week. And even though many of us worship where much of the building is in use during the week, nevertheless our church buildings feature naves (or “sanctuaries,” as the uninformed refer to them: the sanctuary is the immediate area, usually marked by a step or platform, right around the altar) that are used only for “worship events.” They are deliberated designed to have a certain amount of space that is not for use by a wider community.

I have long struggled with that issue. In fact, I was once so taken by Ed Soevik’s book, Architecture for Worship, that I consulted with a few congregations to design their new or remodeled spaces around the “centrum” model – i.e., to design a worship space that could be “broken down” for general community use when the congregation was not worshiping: flexible seating, so that the layout of the room could be reconfigured; removable fixtures, such as altars (just because an altar is consecrated, I reasoned, it doesn’t have to me immovable), so that space could be cleared; no built-in symbolism or iconography that marked the space as specifically Christian. I considered Soevik's to be a practical and faithful approach to what I perceived even then to be the need for a congregation to have a “home” – a regular space where they gathered and were constituted as the people of God in a particular location. It made the building a tool of service, I theologized.

In my own defense, I was not on that bandwagon because it was “contemporary” or “modern” or (the excuse of so many Roman Catholics who earned Cardinal Ratzinger’s, now Pope Benedict XVI’s, ire) “post-Vatican-II.” I have always thought that traditional forms in music, art, literature, and, yes, liturgy are hugely contemporary and modern.

Every age produces a riff on the tradition, yes; and sometimes those riffs turn out to be critical to preserving the tradition – classic jazz, for example. But often (heavy metal: sorry, Daniel; Jackson Pollock: I know some consider him a genius; Marty Haugen), the “contemporary” has little staying power. So I’m in no hurry to “modernize” – except when it comes to the latest Jhane Barnes sweater, when I lust for the money to upgrade.

No, my concerns with respect to church architecture were theological: I felt that the Church needed to live the Gospel she proclaimed. She needed to embody the life of service and sharing that her Lord embodied – especially given that she was now his Body in the world. Consequently, in her treasuries and in her buildings, service and living in the world on the basis of God’s promise seemed to be key.

But I have modified my tune, without abandoning the major key on which I had built the tune – and it’s not just because so many of the “flexible use” spaces called “churches” are so ugly and cheap. (That ought not to have mattered to this limousine liberal, after all.) What I learned, finally (and here I apologize to my teachers who tried to instill this in me faster than I was able to integrate it), was that the old ways are still valuable. Worship spaces should be reserved for worship, even if the rest of the church building (and maybe there doesn’t need to be any more to the church building) is run into the ground by overuse. (Such overuse is seldom the case with our naves.) In order to serve, the Church needs the liturgy -- just as and because her individual members need food. And the liturgy needs a space appropriate to it.

It is firmly established that space shapes behavior, perceptions, and reality. Exterior and interior "styling" matters to what is being done or said or whatever around and within the space. That’s why anthropologists make such a big deal of studying “sacred space.” And that's why architecture as a profession is such a big deal. The best architects are artists and sociologists. Were that not the case, we'd have Soviet-style boxes all over the landscape. Form does, indeed, follow function: And rightly understood that is theological doctrine. But, conversely, function is shaped by form.

So I have come to what many would consider a very conservative view of church buildings. It may or may not be at odds with my progressive socialist proclivities (I can make the case both ways. But regardless, there are times when one’s theology simply must trump one’s politics, even if one believes that his politics are formed out of his theological convictions.)

(Note: In what follows, I mean to be deliberately inconclusive use of "church." In line with Lutheran theology, when I reference “church” or “Church,” I mean both the particular band of believers who gather in a given location and the One, Holy, Apostolic, Catholic.)

For the Church to be Church, she needs, to be sure, to be contemporary, to recognize that "the holy" includes the People of God (those in this place together with all others who claim the name of Christ), to conserve and use wisely the resources of the community and the wider church (denomination). Those concerns fueled many of the scaled down, sort-of-secular spaces that many modern church buildings display (gymnasia-looking fields, folding chairs in a circle, moveable altars, and the like). (I refuse to deal with "drive through" services, offered by some churches in Minnesota. That seems to me to have abandoned any notion of "church" at all, and substituted a kind of religion-dispensing machine in her place.)

But critical to the Church, too, is a sense of mystery, awe, and reverence. Also, the Church needs the awareness that she exists not just synchronically (that is, all over the globe in this time and space), but also diachronically (that is, through at least the past 2000 years). The diachronic dimension of the life of faith requires a sense (I want to say of timelessness, but since that sounds sort of Gnostic, I’ll use) of historic continuity, rather than of time-boundedness; it requires a sense of stability and groundedness, not just mobility; it requires valuation of distinctiveness, not of “fitting in."

And, even though I am a progressive socialist, I also believe that the Church, to fulfill her mandate to worship the true God, needs also a certain sense of extravagance, elegance, and beauty. She needs to display icons of the faith (whether you mean that in the Eastern sense or not). She needs, I think, to offer those who come an atmosphere of reverence and profundity, a foretaste of the heavenly feast.

On a personal note, I acknowledge that much of my own understanding of this issue was shaped by my growing up in an extended family that prized its "homes." Both sets of grandparents lived on farms in homes that had pretty much been built around them: My maternal grandfather helped in the construction of my mother's home; my paternal grandparental home had been built for them by Sinclair Lewis. Both were centers of family life. (My mother to this day refers to where she grew up as "up home.") And both places were marked with family existence: pictures, mementos, chochskies -- items that carried the family's history and meanings. Both had furniture that enabled family interactions of particular sorts: One home had a formal parlor and dining room, where children did not go unless specifically permitted; the other had the music room (usually, too, there were two pianos). The sense of place and of drawing meaning from those places was something I absorbed from the very beginning. We identified with a location, even though we are a far-flung, bicoastal and all points in between family. And its on that model, that I imagine the life of the Church, working through individual congregations.

It is nigh impossible, I think (and I suppose I could name exceptions if I were trying to be fair), to accomplish what I think an ecclesiastical space (to use the listserv-er's phrase) ought in a space that is not "reserved," set aside, consecrated to the one action by which the Church is constituted -- specifically, the celebration of the liturgy in which the Word is faithfully reported and proclaimed and the Word made visible in physical, bodily forms.

Of course, the success of this endeavor does not depend on whether there are pews or not (although even the Orthodox, I understand, are having difficulty keeping seating out). If without pews, the space will at least feature good quality, stable seating (not cafeteria-style stackable plastic monstrosities). The space will be decorated with symbols of the faith -- preferable stained-glass or leaded windows (I love those at Gettysburg Seminary) that highlight the history of the faith. It will be a space – well, you get the point. It doesn't have to be Chartres, but it should be easy on the eye.

I think it important, too, for a church building to look like a “church.” People walking or driving by, living in the neighborhood, or looking over the internet should be able immediately to say, “Oh, that’s a Christian church.” The building should convey a public dimension to the life of the community that meets there. It should speak to the “groupness” and to the differentness of a Christian community – different from the other “social groups” that build buildings and hold meetings. By so proclaiming to the world that this congregation is “in but not of the world,” the building helps to establish that identity in the members on whose behalf the building speaks that message. And as I have countless times indicated, there is a fabulous need, if the Church is to be faithful, for the people of God to recognize and affirm their differentness from the world.

In all of this, I do not mean to suggest that any particular style should be de rigueur. There’s splendid Gothic and there’s gothic; some Romanesque is gorgeous, some hideous; there are fabulous new structures that manage to convey the message I want them to do, while at the same time say, “we’re fresh; we’re here.” Of course, I still think that altars should be set against the east wall of a defined chancel; but reasonable minds can disagree about that. But if there is a free-standing altar/table, then those in positions of responsibility must be extra careful to nurture in other ways (art, vesture, posture) the awe and majesty that are a necessary balance to immanence and contemporaneity. (Oh, I feel a book coming on.)

I am hard-pressed to know whether much of the problem with the decline of disciple in the Church is a reflection of or reflects the modern, flexible-use-space design of much modern church construction. But I am willing to put money down that the two are related.

Church buildings are properly understood as tools for mission. The issue is to determine how the tool operates and to use it appropriately. At least, given the nature of human life in USAmerica, the church building functions at a number of levels, not the least of which is the iconic. If it costs money to establish a building that works property, then that is a cost I am willing to help bear – and to justify to my fellow economic radicals. (It is a different issue to discuss whether a building in Minnesota needs air conditioning: In my congregation, there are those who say that the stifling heat in at least July and August justifies the expense of retrofitting the nave for a/c. There are those who say the money should be spent on those without food and housing, not on making our lives a little more comfortable. That’s a legitimate debate. No one questions abandoning the nave for the air conditioned lounge, however.) If my principle means that a relatively poor congregation cannot afford more than a modest nave, with no “education wing” or the like, so be it.

The Church has had an edifice complex throughout its existence, and I don’t mean to feed that impulse. But I think the Church needs buildings -– appropriate buildings. And while many might consider it a profligate expense to set aside significant space solely for worship, I demur. I am reminded of when the woman anointed Jesus' feet with expensive oil (Matthew 26: 6-13. Matthew is not exactle soft on Christian discipleship!). Dwight, er -- Judas rebuked the woman for not selling the oil and giving the money to the poor. But Jesus took her part: When he said, "The poor you have always with you," he did not mean to suggest that Christians have no duty to attend to the needs of all the world's people. But he highlighted that a certain extravagance in celebration of the presence of the Lord is justified.

The holiness of a Church's nave does not arise because God is somehow more real or present there than anywhere else. (I'll skip discussion of golf courses.) Its holiness resides in its being drawn up into the miracle of God's forming of his people into a peculiar people who worship and serve. It is holy by virtue of its use. This use, however, requires certain arrangments. And that's what I've been trying to get across.

Friday, July 08, 2005

Jim's Ordination -- Part 2

OK, Jim, you asked for this. I hope you’re not offended! (For others: Jim suggested that I blog about his ordination.)

As I previously celebrated in this blog, my friend Jim recently received a call from a Lutheran congregation in California and was approved for ordination. He honored me by asking me to assist at his ordination mass. So I flew out to Tucson and drove the 70 or so miles south to Sierra Vista, and on 25 June beginning at 1:00 p.m. I offered the intercessions and I held the book for Bishop Murray Finck (of the Pacifica Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) as he ordained James Alan Pike into the holy ministry of and to word and sacrament. It was a splendid affair – very low key (and yes, I know that it’s odd for me to refer to a low-key event as “splendid,” but all of life doesn’t have to be papal-high-mass regal – not that I’d mind if it were!); sober, though celebrative; reflective; and substantial.

I have told probably everyone I know of my confidence in Jim’s upcoming ministry in Upland, California. He is a man of great intelligence and insight, firmly committed to the catholic Faith and determined to be a good pastor. And he will be a good and faithful pastor. For in addition to the qualities I have already listed, he is also sensitive, compassionate, clever, and personable (if, like me, a little on the introverted side – or so he says, anyway). And I think he has a good grasp on the nature of ministry – a grasp that will prevent his slipping into “flock sitting.”

I teared up at the Bishop’s announcement of Jim’s ordination – as I did, more profusely, the next day when I communed at the first mass over which Jim presided as a pastor. For I knew and know that I was in on the start of something significant for the Church. I’m jealous of the parish that has called him, for they will witness the fulfillment of my prophecy about him. I can only hear about it second-hand.

Bishop Murray gave every indication of being a fine churchman. He was delayed in arriving at the church until about ten minutes before the processional began. But Jim and I had walked and worked through the rite carefully that morning, so we (very briefly) briefed him on what we thought should happen, asked about his preferences (e.g., whether he wanted me to turn pages for him during the Great Thanksgiving of the mass), made sure he was relaxed. Then I told him that my job was to see that he did what he was supposed to do, so I’d get him when he was needed and tell him what to do when it was time. To his credit as a liturgist (and my great joy as a master of ceremonies!), the Bishop took instruction very well (and with a suitable sense of humor – for some reason, not everyone gets my irony). Furthermore (contrary to others I’ve encountered), he followed the rite and didn’t add his own “personal” touches. He was gracious and dignified in presiding (both at the ordination and at the mass), demonstrating both authority and humility in his demeanor. (My only complaint was that he invited applause after he proclaimed Jim ordained! It’s not his fault: The rubrics specifically allow for it as a demonstration of approval, and, as the Bishop noted, it has become “traditional” to do so. I just can’t get with clapping in church.)

Jim’s father, the pastor of the host congregation, preached. And he offered both practical guidance on being a pastor (e.g., “you are not establishing a career; you are called to minister.”) and the proud sentiment of a father whose son is following him into a vocation about which he himself is very proud and to which he himself seems deeply committed. I told him that I thought that what he preached was gospel. (But even so, he didn’t convince me that it’s a generally good thing for a friend or relative to preach on such occasions. The danger of the sermon’s becoming a kind of groom’s-dinner kind of toast is too great, even though that was not, I think, the case with Harl’s sermon.)

Most impressive for me about the whole affair, however, were the vows to preach and teach and lead the faithful in the truth – the truth as witnessed to in the Confessions, the Creeds, and the Scriptures. (The Lutheran rite is a little shallow on the rest of the Great Tradition, so there was, e.g., no mention of the ecumenical councils and the like.) This section struck me for a couple of reasons: First, the current Lutheran rite is a little less dire in its suggestion of the consequences of not being faithful to the vow than was the rite by which I was ordained and which continues to haunt me. And it was compelling because Jim and I had discussed that particular vow that day (so I knew that it was close to his heart, too.)

When I was ordained, the vow to minister faithfully carried the admonition – even threat – that I would be called to account before almighty God for my ministry. (The current rite frames the matter more mildly: “Before almighty God, to whom you must give account, ….”) I still take it seriously – especially when I’m pondering some new-sounding interpretation of theology or criticizing some “solid Lutheran” on a point of doctrine. When I teach classes at church, I will often warn the class that I’m about to go out on a limb and that they must test what I say because it may not be orthodox (though I pray it is) and I don’t want to mislead them. Sometimes I explain that I’m under a dire ordination admonition not to be flippant with the Church’s teachings and that the vow did not die when I left the “clergy roster.” To me, it is of the essence of the ordination right.

I’m delighted that Jim understands that he must labor under the same warning, however it is couched in current rites. He knows that to be a pastor is to have a specific message to communicate – not just any old thing that makes people feel good. That message has content – and it has a history: He may not just “make it up on the spot,” but must draw it from the 2000 years of the Church’s teaching and preaching. (That’s not to say that the message – the Gospel – doesn’t need translating into new terms and new situations. But the big “hermeneutical” task is to be sure to say what the Church has always said.)

That is a condition not readily acknowledged by a whole host of those ordained – at least as I come into contact with Lutheran pastors. There is almost glee on the part of many as they jettison the traditional teachings (no matter how modernly dressed) in favor of new messages, false gospels, and the like. I regularly hold up Bishop Spong as a negative example: I cite him because he’s not a Lutheran and so he doesn’t evoke some of the emotion that would rise were I to name some Lutherans. (Many Lutherans appreciate him – the more the pity – but they still tend to view him as something of an anomaly, not someone from “within the family.” It’s possible to deal with him more objectively, then.) Bishop Spong seems willing to give away the dogmatic store for the sake of making people feel better about and welcome in Church. And I am alarmed for him (as well as by him). Not only is he sowing discord among the Body of Christ, but also he is riding for a fabulous fall at the last judgment.

Now, I’m not one to believe that one goes to hell for being unorthodox – or even a heretic, for that matter. (Disclaimer: I realize that universalism is not a favored doctrine in the Church’s tradition, even though I’m inclined to think that it’s a better expression of the Gospel than double predestination. Despite the tragic failure of Origen to articulate a satisfactory explanation of universalism, I hold hope that God’s mercy will reach out even to the heretic.) Still, I don’t think we can overlook that teaching of Jesus that it were better for a person to be drowned than to face judgment for having misled the “little ones” of Christ. Of course, the antinomian age in which we practice the faith denies any rules, commandments, or requirements in the life of faith. (It’s all whatever makes you feel good, I guess.) But it seems to me that there is a reckoning coming, and I wish someone would begin to warn the clergy of that.

I have come away from Jim’s ordination with a renewed concern about clericalism in the Church. It was nothing in Jim’s ordination that sparked this; I have been raving about the issue for about a year. But in reflecting on ordination, it seemed nature to bridge over to clericalism – even though most people I know think that that’s the last concern in the Lutheran Church. (They’re wrong, of course.)

I define clericalism as that sentiment that the “real work” of faith is done by the clergy and that the clerics really are holier than the rest of “ordinary Christians.” I think such sentiment is rampant in the Church (held by clerics and laypeople alike) – and I think it’s an ecumenical problem. (At first, I thought that it might be more an issue for the “high” churches, with their ritual and vestments and sobriety and “Father”-language. But I realize that it’s a factor in all traditions and denominations. If push were to come to shove, most Christians, I believe, would claim that clergy are better than lay people.)

Evidence of the problem comes in various forms. First, at Jim’s ordination, there were some signs. The lay people in the congregation were (understandably) delighted to see a son of the congregation ordained: He had grown up in the congregation; they love his father; they know how smart he is. But some of them spoke in various ways about his “higher” calling. There was also the sense, which I was surprised (and surprised to be surprised) to get, that Jim was more religious than they are. (It feeds the stereotype that the laity expect the clergy to be the professional religion-practicers.) Then there were the pastors who participated in the laying on of hands. A couple of them asked me about my ministry, and when I said that I wasn’t a pastor, but rather a lawyer (for heaven’s sake), they sort of shrank away -- lost interest. That’s been my experience in other ordinations, too: A layperson doesn’t “belong.” (I also see that when I visit friends who live in a retirement community that comprises numerous retired pastors and bishops. They stick to themselves and, to quote some “lay” residents, carry “an air.”)

In the wider church, I think there is an indication of clericalism in the ways we don’t limit “pasturing” to word and sacrament ministry. Pastors regularly get called or hired (and are kept on the clergy roster – i.e., on the rolls of those called to ministry of word and sacrament) to do work that could easily be done by laypeople – e.g., administering hospitals or editing books or being bureaucrats or teaching in seminaries or being counselors. And I think that the low number of pastors who have trained lay “assisting ministers” for the mass is another point supporting my argument.

Now, I hold a very high doctrine of the ministry. I think the ministry of and to word and sacrament is essential to the life of the Church. Without ordained ministers, there is no church. Thus, I do not subscribe a kind of “delegation” theory of the pastorate – i.e., that “for the sake of good order” (e.g., to keep everyone from talking in church at once) the church selects someone to act as a representative the whole. Ministry is more serious than that. It is of divine ordering for the Church.

But neither do I hold to a kind of “Roman” view that there is granted in ordination some indelible or unchangeable “ontological” character or transformation. The “charism” of ministry (to quote my Eastern friends) is the grace, power, willingness, and means to preach and preside – made possible by the Holy Spirit’s working through the minister. It is a peculiar – i.e., special and unique – charism, and it is “hierarchical.” But it is “hierarchical” in the true sense of the word – not in the sense of lording it over or having higher status, but in the sense of participating in the divine ordering of the Church (hieros = holy; archos = leading or order). It is the office, not the officeholder, that is holy.

There are two problems with clericalism. First, it diminishes the ministry of laypeople. It reduces the Church to its clerics, who provide a service to people who are essentially outsiders. Second, it diminishes the real meaning of ministry. It focuses on the person and ignores the importance of preaching and presiding in the life of the Church.

Of the first, I can say little. We pay a lot of lip service to “secular” vocations. But, what I will not demonstrate here, I think it is solely lip service. We really practice a kind of ecclesiastical institutionalism which holds that if you’re not working for the institution of the Church, you’re doing something perhaps necessary, but less than sacred.

More important to my consideration here is what clericalism says about what “pastors” are intended to do. There is a dearth of the sense of the “holiness” of ministry of and to word and sacrament. And clericalism feeds into that by emphasizing the personal character of the ministry rather than what is ministered.

I remember that when I came out of seminary and was ordained, there was great stewing among the “troops” (of pastors) about their “place” in the world. They wanted to be relevant, to make a difference, to be useful and helpful. And so they had to find some alternative “model” for their ministry that would allow them to establish such a place. To preside at the Eucharist and to preach didn’t seem particularly important or effective to many. (I confess that there were times I felt that – but I was young and hadn’t thought a lot of things through yet. J )

Many of my colleagues became administrators, and they ran congregational programs and building-fund appeals and all the rest better than some CEOs of corporations. Their model of ministry was drawn from the corporate world. (Preaching was a rather logical extension of that kind of leadership, and presiding was a kind of religious veneer added to give meaning to this organization’s reason for being – distinct from other organizations’.) Others adopted a therapeutic model, and they visited and counseled and provoked – oops, evoked – crises that they could then deal with. It was in such person-to-person care that they found meaning for their title “Reverend” – which is an adjective, not a title. (I once told a colleague that I wouldn’t schedule more than three counseling sessions with people if the issue were psychological. After that, I insisted they consult a licensed professional. He thought I was crazy – and a failure as a “minister.” My CPE adviser tried to get me to forsake ordained ministry because I was inadequately committed to psychotherapeutic methods.) I guess I could accept a “minister as healer” if the “healer” used the classic Christian methods of healing – e.g., anointing, confession and absolution. But that was not what they were about. Others were people persons of other kinds – really keen on youth work or the like.

But almost none understood, it seemed to me, the meaning of a ministry to and of word and sacrament. And that may have reflected the lack of an ecclesiology within which the importance of the Word spoken and made visible was the meaning of the Church. Clericalism fits nicely with a model of the Church as a religion-dispensing organization. It finds a foothold in a constantinian world in which the Church is chaplain to the world – meeting the world on the world’s terms and making the world feel better for it.

But those are not appropriate models of the Church.

But if not, then what is an adequate model? In the Church of the apostles, in the Church of Luther, in the Church of Hauerwas and Huetter and Jenson, what does it mean that some be “set apart”? (The rite still uses that language.) What ought ministry to look like today? (And by that, I don’t mean – but I don’t exclude – ought pastors to wear clerical collars any longer?) What can we say about the charism of ministry? (Is there a charism for the presbyterate different from that for the episcopacy? If arguably so, is that why we Lutherans can’t break through with Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox?) Will congregations allow pastors to be preachers and presiders – and only tangentially involved in the “running” of the parish. Will many be interested in being that kind of pastor?

As one of the Church’s pastors (and one of her newest, at that), Jim, you must help us work through these questions and to work toward a renewed seriousness toward ordained ministry. You must demonstrate what ordained ministry is and resist giving in to popular practices that distort that understanding. You must remember your calling – that it centers on pulpit and altar. And by “centers,” I don’t mean that it sees those as convenient jumping off places for the real work of ministering. I mean that your ministry must enable your people to experience the centripetal and centrifugal forces of the chancel – to be the people of God, and not just a religious people. The Holy Ministry is not a utilitarian operation and it does not consider the Word read and spoken and acted to be fuel for some other life.

May the God who brought from the dead our Lord Jesus Christ, by the ministrations of the Holy Spirit, equip James with every good gift to fulfill his calling to the Holy Ministry, working through him all that is pleasing to Him.