Not long ago, my pastor asked if I’d be willing to serve as a delegate for our congregation at the convention of the local synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). I felt guilty doing so, but I turned her down. That’s unusual for me (not the guilt, the refusal). I like and admire my pastor, and I don’t like saying no to her. But this time I had to. I knew, from previous experience, that going to the meeting would put me in an at least medium–term funk injurious to my spiritual well–being. The ELCA—with its race–and–gender quotas, squishiness on abortion and homosexuality, and general proclivity for political and theological correctness—is not a place where Christians of traditionalist inclinations feel much at home these days.
Well actually, we do and we don’t. Most of us ELCA Lutherans of “evangelical catholic” sensibility experience a curious dichotomy in our religious lives. We are thoroughly satisfied with conditions in our local congregations, and thoroughly unsatisfied with conditions in the larger church. (That is just the reverse of what I hear from my conservative Roman Catholic lay friends, all of whom rejoice in what the pontificate of John Paul II has meant for Catholicism at large but many of whom find the banal homilies and slovenly liturgical practices in their local parishes difficult to endure.)
What brings the subject of the state of Lutheranism again to mind is a recent book by Richard Cimino, Trusting the Spirit: Renewal and Reform in American Religion (Jossey–Bass, 208 pp., $21.95). Cimino includes a chapter on evangelical catholic Lutherans, whom he defines as those seeking “to recover the liturgical and confessional heritage of Lutheranism in continuity with the broad tradition that includes Anglicans, Roman Catholics, and the Eastern Orthodox, and emphasizes the sacraments and liturgy.” He focuses on the American Lutheran Publicity Bureau (ALPB), a pan–Lutheran renewal organization, and the Society of the Holy Trinity (STS for its Latin name), “one of the first religious orders for Lutheran pastors in North American history.”
The ALPB was formed in 1914 to help immigrant German Lutherans adjust to life in America and, more broadly, to establish connections between Lutheranism and the larger American culture. It is an independent entity, institutionally distinct from both the ELCA and the other major American Lutheran body, the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS). (Full disclosure: I am a member of the ALPB’s Board of Directors.) In its long history, the ALPB has adjusted its priorities and programs to meet changing circum stances. Today, in Cimino’s words, it acts primarily “as a clearinghouse and resource center where evangelical catholics can find . . . theological and pastoral support for their ministries and concerns about their deno minations.” To that end it publishes two journals, the quarterly Lutheran Forum and the monthly Forum Letter (the latter of which was edited for many years by Richard John Neuhaus), in addition to a wide variety of books, tracts, and pamphlets.
The STS is a much newer institution. It was founded in 1996 to help pastors, both ELCA and LCMS, who are in varying ways concerned with theological, moral, and liturgical tendencies in contemporary Lutheran ism. Its rule requires that its members engage in daily prayer, attend periodic retreats, and practice indivi dual confession and mutual pastoral visitation. Like the ALPB, the STS avoids participation in the ecclesial politics of its members’ church bodies. Evangelical catholics have largely given up on the hope of bending either the ELCA or the LCMS in their direction. They want rather to offer community and consolation to American Lutherans anywhere who share their concerns. That represents a considerable comedown in expectations. In the 1970s and early 1980s, many evangelical catholics persuaded themselves, naively as it turned out, that they represented the wave of the Lutheran future. Their program of liturgical reform, theological renewal, and ecumenical outreach to Rome (“healing the breach of the sixteenth century”) seemed in the ascendancy. But the conservative takeover of the LCMS in the seventies turned that body inward and backward, while the new ELCA, established in 1987, moved from the outset in the direction of the liberal Protestant mainline. In the aftermath, evan gelical catholics found themselves on the margins of both churches.
That depressing recent history accounts for the spirit of melancholy often encountered in evangelical catholic circles, a spirit reflected in Cimino’s sympa thetic but almost elegiac treatment of the movement’s current condition. (One of his section subheads reads, “Will the Last Evangelical Catholic Leaving Turn Out the Lights?”)
One understands the mood of pessimism. The ALPB and the STS both have small memberships: the former numbering in the low thousands, the latter in the low hundreds. They are also both geographically strongest in the northeast, where Lutheranism is numerically weak, which contributes to a sense of irrelevance and ineffectuality. Many evangelical catholic pastors preside over small and ever dwindling congregations.
To make matters worse, evangelical catholics are in a number of ways divided among themselves. Along denominational lines, to begin with. I have found, rather to my surprise, that even within ALPB circles members of the ELCA and the LCMS sometimes regard each other with considerable suspicion. Old stereotypes die hard: Missourians are inclined to assume that ELCA theologians have at best a nodding acquaintance with the Lutheran Confessions of the sixteenth century, while ELCA members, for their part, tend to regard adherents of the LCMS as closet fundamentalists.
Denominational disagreements should not be exaggerated: they are by no means all–pervasive, and where they do hold, they seldom go deep. More significant are divisions between clergy and laity. These are not so much differences in theology as in perspective. Evangelical catholicity is, to begin with, a largely clerical phenomenon. Only 20 percent of current subscribers to Lutheran Forum, for example, are laypeople. The overwhelming majority of Lutheran laity are unaware of and uninvolved in the disputes within and between their churches, and Cimino finds that many, even most, of the evangelical catholic pastors he interviewed make little effort to involve their parishioners in the struggles they face. They rarely preach about those conflicts or even bring them up in adult education programs. As one pastor told Cimino: “I have a passion to preach the gospel and administer the sacraments. I [do not] want to use the worship service as a setting to [deal] with . . . church issues.”
Even those laypeople informed on the issues respond to them rather differently than most clergy. They are, among other things, less depressed about them. This is quite understandable. I have already noted that most evangelical catholics are quite happy with conditions in their own congregations, and for most laity that is quite enough. We have no regular or necessary involvement in the larger affairs of our churches, and we can treat those churches as little more than annoying distractions. Members of the clergy cannot afford such insouciance. Their professional relation to the larger church, if nothing else, means that they cannot simply act as if it were not there. When I think about the ELCA I mostly grieve, but I mostly do not think about it. It is difficult for ELCA pastors to be so cavalier, and those who hold views toward the church similar to mine necessarily do more grieving. The most fundamental division in evangelical catholic circles is between those who are deter mined, come what may, that they will remain Lutheran and those who are at least willing to consider that their catholicity might one day edge into Catholicism. My sense of things is that fewer laity than clergy find themselves tempted by Rome. A fellow lay member of the ALPB board indicated to Cimino her impatience with “Catholic wannabes” among evan gelical catholic clergy. “There’s nothing wrong with the Lutheran tradition. We don’t need to become more Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox. We just have to be Lutheran.” I agree with her conclusion and I admire her feistiness.
That feistiness, I recognize, is available only to those with a certain view of what constitutes the Christian ecclesial reality. The evangelical catholic Lutherans I know who have gone to Rome—and I know a distressingly large number of them—have done so, if I understand them rightly, for mostly ecclesiastical reasons. They think Rome has clear claim, in the West at least, to the title of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. Evangelical catholics of my per suasion think of the Church in different terms. We consider that the one Church has had various institutional manifestations through time, and we continue to consider Lutheranism a confessional movement in the one comprehensive Church of Christ whose full lineaments will be made clear only in the End Time.
We do not for a moment minimize the problems, great and small, of the Lutheran churches today, but, as we remind ourselves and others, so it has ever been and ever will be in all the churches that have, in God’s mysterious purposes, been part of His one Church on earth. We hold to ecumenism, but we do not think of it as a network of one–way streets that leads, finally and necessarily, only to Rome.
In the meantime, we are grateful for evangelical catholicity’s not insubstantial successes. It has created within Lutheranism pockets of faithfulness in doctrine and practice for those who find their distinct Lutheran piety fully compatible with the Great Tradition of Christian orthodoxy. So feisty we will remain. Lutherans know something, after all—if one may be permitted the phrase—about sinning boldly.