Monday, April 24, 2006

On Not Leaving a Church

I stumbled on something I had saved over a month ago, and upon reading it, I almost rose right up out of my seat. (Actually, I was reclining as I read it, so rising was a less-enticing option than I make it sound.) Episcopal Bishop Edward S. Little II (of Northern Indiana) posted “Living with Tares” at (you may see it here). And he shares a very healthy perspective on life in the Church in this time of controversy and hand-wringing. Herewith, a précis of his reflection and some of my personal reactions.

Bp. Little addresses the painful issue of seeing friends and respected colleagues, together with numerous of the faithful, leaving the Episcopal Church -- usually for another, non-Episcopal Church or tradition. The usual “presenting issue” is that of homosexuality (though from my reading, it appears that many often couch that reason in higher-sounding phrases)and the Episcopal Church’s difficulty in coming to consensus on how to deal with it.

Bishop Little finds the departures doubly painful because, in addition to knowing and admiring many of the departers, he agrees with them that “[t}he Episcopal Church, my spiritual home since Christian conversion as a college sophomore, has (I believe) seriously erred. We have rejected clear biblical teaching, refused to listen to the pleas of Anglicans around the world, and shattered dialogue with many of our ecumenical partners.”

But Bp. Little sets out his case for staying in the Episcopal Church, rather than leaving, too – and I find his arguments compelling.

First, Bp. Little stresses that Jesus’ prayer that all his followers may be one is more than just a nice suggestion; it is mandate, command. Furthermore, Jesus “invites the world outside the Christian community to make decision about him on the basis of our unity.” How we deal with one another during times of crisis becomes part and parcel of and with the Gospel we proclaim – whether we mean to make it so or not.

Bp. Little offers to treat those whom he opposes (including, not incidentally, the now-notorious poster child for all that ails the ECUSA, Bp. Gene Robinson) as brothers and sisters in Christ, recognizing, too, that the differences that divide the church are not as clear as zealots on either pole would have us believe. Living with “tares among the wheat,” as Jesus puts it in a parable, seems the better part of wisdom, affording the Holy Spirit time to work her will through the controversy and upset.

The Bishop cites three principles offered by Augustine during the Donatist schism – and,. again, they seem bang-on correct and helpful:

“1. The true identity of the church as Christ’s body is in no way diminished by the imperfections of its human members. [If that applies to the sacramental actions of a heretical or immoral priest. it applies, a fortiori, to the Church.]

“2. As long as we live in this present age, we must accept that it is God’s will that saints and sinners are mixed together in the church.

“3. Breaking communion and separating ourselves from the church is ultimately more damaging than the heretical ideas and practices that may have occasioned these actions.”

I say, “Amen.” Here is a bishop acting and sounding like a bishop. I know that he will be accused of being weak, jelly-spined, heterodox, naïve, and a lot of other things. But I think he sounds a wise, orthodox, benevolent note: Let us try to live in peace with one another, regardless of our differences, in the spirit of Christian fellowship.

It’s not that the differences don’t matter. They are often critically important. and that fact coupled with a desire to remain faithful should inspire us to continue to work to discern the actual workings of the spirit of truth. We Lutherans, especially, should relate to that – as we face battles over gay unions, gay pastors, bishops, Eucharistic fellowship, congregational authority, and all the rest. Remember that when Luther died, one notable “biographer” noted that a stench very like the smell of devil pervaded the room when Luther died (or something of that sort – I know I’m not nuancing his point very well.) Today, however, “A Mighty Fortress” is sung even (I suspect) with the approval of The German Shepherd of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Benedict XVI (who probably sang it auf Deutsch, himself). While I understand that it’s easy to second-guess history, and I don’t mean to let either side off the hook, how much earlier might we have arrived at the Joint Decree on the Doctrine of Justification had Luther’s pope not excommunicated him (and worse) and had Luther himself and, especially, his followers responded to papal decrees with a little more humbly? (Yes, I know that Luther was fighting a losing case with the popes of his day, but that doesn’t necessarily rebut my concern. And yes, I know that the the Confessio Augustana allows for the papacy. Still … .)

Picking up one's toys and moving to another sandbox is no more productive in the Church than it is in a pre-school.

Now, It’s no secret that I constantly (sometimes more quietly, sometimes more vociferously) ruminate about my future in the ELCA. “We’ve got trouble” at Higgins Road and in Minneapolis. Is one of my great themes. And I am tempted to bolt, though to where I could bolt remains problematic.

A couple of things have held me back: Most seriously, there is no where for me to go except to a tradition where I would be severing communion with the family and friends who mean the most to me. (Thank you to Edith Humphrey for helping me to put this to words.) That is a huge price which I can pay only as an absolutely last resort.

Second, I don’t believe that “leaving” -- especially leaving in anger or disappointment -- is a legitimate option for anyone: Being drawn inescapably to another tradition is, I suppose, in contrast a legitimate reason for leaving. But as Carl Braaten has memorably put it, You don’t “leave” Lutheranism because you’re angry; in that case you just become an angry Lutheran Catholic or Lutheran Orthodox or Lutheran Baptist (wait: that last one is almost redundant for many). I know that’s what would be the case with me.

Third, if my wish or "needP is to leave my home congregation for another Lutheran place, it is almost impossible to find one whose liturgical life is up-to-snuff by my lights. I think the issue of liturgy in the historical forms and manners is more than a matter of taste – as I have noted probably ad nauseum. It is not enough to have good preaching (also rare) or good Christian education or ... or ... .

So now I have a new mission that accommodates my concerns. Following Bp. Allen's confession, I have a salve to keep me where I am. I cannnot swear, affirm, or aver that this is my stand to the end of time. For now, I draw from Bp. Allen a kind of mission. The Bishop summarizes that beautifully, and I quote him at length:

Why do I not join those who have left or are leaving? Why do I stay? Serving a broken and divided church is a hard calling, and I do not minimize the difficulty of the task or the inevitable disappointments that I will encounter on the journey. But the Lord, for his good purpose has (I humbly believe) thrown into one church Christians of radically different and sometimes theologically incompatible perspectives. [How Anglican is that? Lutherans would have some trouble swallowing it, I suppose, but the evidence suggests its true of us, too.] Is it possible that in the midst of this painful discontinuity, he may do a work that none of us can foresee? It is in that hope and in remembering that he is Lord of the Church and in charge of the big picture that I follow Jesus in the Episcopal Church [here I edit to say “ELCA”].


Anonymous said...

Interesting, Dwight.

Funny that this has been on my mind, too (it always comes to mind at Orthodox Pascha). I worship at one of the very few other ELCA churches in town - besides yours - which honors the Lutheran liturgical tradition. But I all but decided that if, when my pastor retires (and that won't probably be more than a couple of years away) we get some purpose-driven,nutcase numbers-freak who destroys our wonderful tradition of liturgically rich worship, I will run - not walk - to the Orthodox Church and join the rest of my family there.

On the PLUS side: what you mention, being able to commune with my family in a church that doesn't "innovate" or mess with liturgical tradition - or with anything, for that matter.

On the MINUS side: never being able to sing or hear Bach at worship again - ever. At this point in my life, such a tragic sadness overcomes any petty frustrations I have with the ELCA.

We'll see what happens when my pastor retires.


Lutheran Zephyr said...

Thank you for your post, and more importantly, for sticking around the ELCA. The church would be so bland if it were just a bunch of liberal, liturgical innovators . . . I myself am in the progressive wing of the church yet lament when (at times) my fellow progressives let go of our Lutheran theological heritage for the sake of progress, ecumenism, whatever . . .

If you have a moment, I'd love to read your thougths about what it means to be Lutheran (I've posted this question over at my blog, The Lutheran Zephyr).

Dwight P. said...

Cool challenge and great idea. I'm going to work on my thoughts for a couple of days (or so), but I'll plug the idea in a separate post.