"What a testimony it would be, in the midst of this balkanized society, if two churches, long separated, could affirm each other and begin to knit up the ministries that have so long been divided. It would be a prophetic sign; a sign that things do not have to remain as they are....” Thus had H. George Anderson, presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, envisioned the effects of his church’s entering into full communion with the Episcopal church.

The deeper the pain, the fewer the words. Appropriately, then, the first report was terse. In two sentences, the ELCA stated that its churchwide assembly had rejected the “Concordat of Agreement” by a slim six-vote margin.

The concordat, published in 1991, was the product of dialogues and agreements between Lutherans and Episcopalians over nearly three decades. Episcopal church approval required the vote of its general convention. Approval by the ELCA required the vote of its churchwide assembly. This year, 1997, was chosen as the year of decision by both groups. Both were already scheduled to meet this summer in Philadelphia, one month apart.

As decision time approached, conferences, debates, books, and on-line discussions helped to clarify the meaning and implications of “full communion.” It was not going to be a merger of the two churches, each with rich and diverse traditions. Rather, at the end of the process outlined in the concordat, they would “share one ordained ministry in two churches that are in full communion, still autonomous in structure yet interdependent in doctrine, mission, and ministry” (Concordat, no. 15).

Sharing in one ordained ministry would result from the concordat’s declaration that each church recognized the full authenticity of the other’s ministry. This sharing would be extended and consolidated by its provision that all future ordination of a bishop in one church would involve at least three bishops from the other church. At the grassroots, Lutherans and Episcopalians would experience the concordat most vividly in Eucharistic celebrations by Lutheran clergy in Episcopal parishes and vice versa.

The doctrinal, liturgical, and canonical complexities of moving toward full communion were to be handled by a joint commission. Though many details remained unclear, the concordat was widely regarded as one of the most theologically responsible, pastorally prudent, and ecumenically powerful initiatives in the quest for church unity.

Why was the concordat put to a vote when a number of important details still remained unsettled? The reason-and the key to the concordat itself-was mutual recognition. Church leaders felt that nearly thirty years of dialogue had prepared each church to declare that it recognized in the other “the essentials of the one catholic and apostolic faith.” If each church maintained and taught “the essentials of the one catholic and apostolic faith,” on what ground could either refuse full communion?

The “historic episcopate” proved to be that ground for the Lutherans. Like the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches, the Episcopal church has a “three-fold ordained ministry,” bishop, priest, and deacon. The “historic episcopate,” the succession of bishops that goes back to the Apostles, is deemed an essential element of the church. The ELCA, however, maintains a single ordained ministry, pastor. ELCA bishops are pastors who are elected to an office of oversight for a limited term.

Mutual recognition, however, would have allowed Lutherans to adopt the “historic episcopate” as a means, not an essential, of their church’s proclamation of the gospel, while Episcopalians could state that the ELCA had maintained the essentials of faith, even without the historic episcopate. Proponents argued that classical Lutheranism had never rejected episcopacy in principal but only its abuses. Opponents insisted that unity requires only agreement on the teaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments. Moreover, the concordat would add the three-fold ordained ministry, making their egalitarian church a hierarchy.

In June, the concordat’s chances looked good, although opposition was growing. When the Episcopal church overwhelmingly approved it in July, many saw ELCA approval as a foregone conclusion. One month later, though, an historic opportunity was lost by just six votes.

The concordat would have energized the ecumenical movement, now perceived as moribund. It would also have challenged the Roman Catholic church to re-examine its understanding of episcopacy. Rome’s ecumenical commitment means that, sooner or later, it must assess the status of churches which, like the ELCA, do not maintain the historic episcopate. Faced with the same issue, the architects of the concordat distinguished between apostolicity and apostolic succession. They argued that a church can be apostolic in its teaching, worship, and practice, even though it lacks bishops in the historic succession. Succession signifies and serves apostolicity; it does not guarantee it. Many Catholic theologians find this approach persuasive. In official Roman Catholic teaching, however, historic succession is both a sign and a guarantee of the apostolicity of the church. It is not optional or negotiable. Yet if apostolicity means more than just having bishops, and if the essentials of the faith were found in a church without bishops in the historic succession, wouldn’t unity still be possible?

No doubt, much has been lost by the ELCA vote. The future of its relationship with the Episcopal church is murky. Yet the wealth of theological analysis around the concordat must and will continue to fund the quest for that unity for which Christ prayed (John 17:21).

Jon Nilson is professor emeritus of theology at Loyola University Chicago and a former president of the Catholic Theological Society of America.

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Published in the 1997-09-12 issue: View Contents
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