It is very hard to swallow yet another Lutheran church body in America but that, following a two-day August 26-27 convocation in Columbus, Ohio, is what America has: the North American Lutheran Church (NALC). “North America” sounds rather expansive and that is only because some few congregations of Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada will be part of the new denomination.
And I say “yet another” because in 1930 there were perhaps twenty to twenty-four Lutheran groups in America. Following nearly seventy years of fervent consolidation and church merger leading to the 1987 formation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), Lutherans have successfully reduced their synodical groups down to, hmm, some twenty to twenty-four church bodies.
Every merger has left a splinter, a micro-synod among the ruins, and some of the micro-synods have in turn spawned their own splits. One split occurred within a synod comprising maybe some twelve congregations on whether the King James Version is the only translation properly used in public worship. I forget whether it was the larger or smaller portion that went off with the KJV under their arms, not that it much matters. It is hard keeping an exact count of Lutheran church bodies because not that many people—Lutherans included—really bother. But it does say something about Lutherans, if not about their nature then at least about how seriously they take their finer points of doctrine and practice.
The best estimate for the eventual membership of the NALC doesn’t top 200 parishes until the end of 2011. Five hundred congregations over the next six years is also tossed around. Compare that to the 10,000 parishes with a combined membership of 4.8 million remaining in the ELCA and in any tilting contest, the windmill wins. Still, 200 parishes—that figure would make the NALC the fourth largest Lutheran synod in United States (depending on whether you are counting “associations” or “synods”—never mind, Lutherans know the difference). Fourth place prompted at least one wag to suggest a synodical motto: “Not Your Smallest Lutheran Church.”
Micro as it is, the NALC, was formed in direct response to ELCA actions a year ago voting to permit the ordination of pastors in homosexual liaisons—albeit liaisons characterized by mutuality, same-sex monogamy, and lifelong commitment. Though the first ordinations included one or two self-identified bisexuals and at least one transgendered individual (all in San Francisco this past July), the ELCA neglected to provide for any rite of union or blessing or marriage suggesting any sort of accountability for the gay clergy admitted to the ELCA roll. As for the transgendered person, best as I can dope that out, this is a guy who wants to be a woman attracted to other women. Or woman; that monogamy thing, remember?
But it isn’t all about sex. That is a hard thing to remember and it doesn’t much help when the media report only that, nor does it help when Herb Chilstrom, the first ELCA presiding bishop, says it must be about sex and traditionalist hang-ups. But as I posted a year ago, approval of homosexuality
. . . is merely the presenting issue following a long, long line of revisionist propositions that have found a home with the Christian left. The authority of Scripture, the reality of sin, the name of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—all these and other critical expositions on God’s revelation to humanity have been under sustained attack. When these go, well, only sex is left and here we are, [blessing] what Scripture, natural law, and common sense itself condemns. (See: An Ecumenical Moment for One)
As micro-synods go, NALC doesn’t look half bad. Of course my judgment is not without self-interest. The NALC is the off-spring of the Lutheran Coalition for Reform (CORE) and I was briefly a member of CORE’s steering committee and later an advisory member to the board. I was not unimpressed by the convocation.
I attended worried about the tone and tenor of things. The prospect of hearing angry Lutherans denouncing the ELCA wasn’t a pleasant one. Yet remarks against the ELCA were few, and when they did come up they were respectful. Thoughts of leaving the ELCA are painful, daunting in fact. These are folks who did once literally ache for the unification of Lutherans in North America. There was little chance, of course, that the far more conservative Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod would ever consent, but even here there was hope that, given time, okay, maybe a lot of time, something nonetheless might be done that would bring the two largest Lutheran bodies together. Dreams fade, but most of NALC’s leadership, especially the new NALC bishop, the Rev. Dr. Paull Spring (a former bishop in the ELCA), had once spent themselves in creating the ELCA. The conversation on leaving was somberly poignant, even melancholic.
The NALC’s formation brought Tanzanian Bp. Benson Bagonza, Kanagwe Diocese, to Columbus, who participated in Spring’s installation. Several bishops of the new Anglican Church in North America attended as observers, along with Fr. James Massa, executive director of the USCCB secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs. Also present, several pastors of the Ethiopian Lutheran Mekane Yesus Church. African Lutherans might be best described as incensed by ELCA actions. The Lutheran World Federation just completed a recent international assembly where acrimonious debate on human sexuality and the rule of Scripture was barely avoided; Africans see the NALC as someone they can do business with.
Where this all goes, of course, is anyone’s guess in the moment, yet in the same moment, the NALC is betting that genuinely disaffected ELCA Lutheran congregations will find themselves a new home.
Russell E. Saltzman is pastor of Ruskin Heights Lutheran Church, Kansas City, Missouri.