Monday, January 4, 2010

Lutheran-Episcopal 'Together in Ministry'

I continue to marvel at the intricacies of working in the Lutheran church while being an Episcopalian. Yesterday I led a service at a parish that is bringing together a Lutheran congregation and an Episcopal parish. They began their journey because of financial necessity. But that isn’t what can keep them together. They will have to make something new that is a compromise of their two equally strong traditions to make the ‘Together in Ministry’ work.
How we worship is central to both traditions so even small changes in the liturgy can be problematic. But compromises can be made when both sides understand that both are sacrificing for the betterment of the congregation. Those sacrifices need to be fairly equal, though. However, one group cannot be the bearer of all the sacrifice in the matter of liturgy and still maintain their sense of rootedness in their own tradition. It will take quite a bit of creativity on the part of that group to develop ways of celebrating Christ among them and spread the good news that is in them. So here are some things that I observe that are different that may need to be addressed:
• Bishops’ offices are not the place to work out difficulties. This is not casting aspersions against our judicatories, but the bishops’ job is to maintain the denomination. Those of us who are working across denominational lines need to tell our judicatories what it is like in ecumenical settings and help our bishops understand the exigencies of this new reality.
• Ethnicity IS an issue. The majority of Episcopalians is ethnically English or has been heavily influenced by English culture. Because American culture is heavily influenced by English culture, most Episcopalians do not even realize that ethnicity or culture is an issue in religion until we confront the Lutherans who constantly have to address the German-Scandinavian divides that are among them.
• Catholicism and Protestantism is STILL an issue. Many Episcopalian see their faith as heavily catholic with a small ‘c’. Lutherans can be almost phobic about catholic theology. They do not trust catholicism because they identify it with Romanism against which they are still leading the protest. It is deeply rooted in their protestant tradition. But the catholicism that Lutherans retain in the Deutche Messe is deeply treasured. They just don’t identify it with being catholic. Episcopalians on the other hand don’t hold with papism but they often ape romanistic ways in the liturgy. Episcopalians need to be aware of the reasons for their actions in the liturgy and Lutherans need to find ways of claiming their own rootedness in a catholic faith.
• There are some stereotypes of Lutheran and Episcopalians that need to be addressed: Episcopalians are often seen as the landed gentry, or the upper class in America. That was once true in American history, but is no longer the case. Since WWII for the most part, Episcopal churches serve in all kinds of ethic and economic worlds. But sometimes we Episcopalians still give off airs of being upper class. We have to address that. The really wealthy tend not to be in any church these days—more’s the pity. Most Episcopalians are just ordinary folks—usually a bit better educated than the average Christian according to the various surveys. Lutherans give off the air of being stodgy, dour hard-headed Germans or Scandinavians. And some of them are. But most of them are as far from the European experience as most Americans are. Our values are usually the same.
• The majority of Lutherans have been Lutheran since birth so family customs dwell deeply in their experience of faith. Eighty percent of Episcopalians, on the other hand, have been some other denomination before landing in the Episcopal Church. Change tends to be more difficult for Lutherans than Episcopalians, but that stereotype doesn’t necessarily hold. I have known Episcopalians who have had just a rough time with the changes of recent years. It is the reason that we have the schism presently.
• I have said before that humor is different among the two denominations. My snarky, sarcastic, sardonic, wordsmithed play with the English language is not appreciated among my Lutheran friends. It is not seen as seemly. This may come from having been an immigrant community for so long, but it pays those who are trying to bring two different ways of understanding together to be aware of it.
• In comparison to the Lutherans, Episcopalians do not understand church organization. The Lutherans do know how to organize and manage things! And don’t try to get in the way. At the diocesan or clergy level, Episcopalians think of the canons. We think of how things fit into the legal realm of things. Lutherans are more likely to try to manage things at the congregational level and the management goes up from there.
• The understanding of the role of the bishop is very distinct. Episcopalians tend to elect their bishops and then treat them like the far-away home office. They provide great pomp and circumstance when they visit, but mostly they ignore them. Lutheran bishops are elected for a length of time. They visit only if invited or if the congregation is without a pastor. Pastors do not have an obedience factor in their relationship with their bishop as a priest does.
• The role of pastor and the role of priest are a bit different too. When I went to seminary I understood the role of priest to be one priest who was prophet and who was teacher. Very little of the idea of “locum Cristi” was part of the theology that I was taught. There was some nod toward the role of pastor in the pastoral counseling skills we were taught. Today in the Episcopal Church I find more of my younger colleagues to have been taught more of that “locum Christi”—standing in the place of Christ—theology. That is too Romish for me but it works for them. Among Lutherans, the role of the clergy is to be PASTOR in large print. And I have seen that theology of ministry from the top (from the Presiding Bishop) down. There is less of a need for a herald, although the evangelical element is constantly emphasized. The leader of the church is to be one who shepherds, cares and brings peace into the community. I can see the benefits of both. I feel that I have become a better pastor through the influence of Lutheran friends. I hope through my emphasis on teaching and proclaiming, I have been able to stir folks to encounter Christ more readily.
• Lastly—at least for today. I see the differences in TEC and the ELCA is that we approach the Christ event from two different points of view. Our doctrine is the same. The prevailing theologies that under pin that doctrine are fairly interchangeable. But Lutherans always look at the Christ event through the lens of the Cross. All emphasis is put on Christ’s saving work of the Cross. All of Scripture is seen through that lens. I think that Episcopalians see the Christ event through the lens of the Incarnation—that God became human that we might know the call to divinity. This is my opinion and there will be some on both sides that will disagree. And that is fine. But it is a good way to begin thinking of how we approach the Christ event and that perhaps we have come to a time when we use more than one lens.


Ivy said...

Thank you for the post. I think you've hit on some excellent similarities/differences between the denominations. This will certainly help our ecumenical working together, particularly since we are in full communion.


Muthah+ said...

That is the intent. I hope I have not been too sterotypical in this post. It was not my intent. But often we who have worked in one tradition and try to take our assumptions into the other denomination will stub their toes soundly and it can cause some real problems for them and their congregaions.

Ivy said...

I appreciate it. Too often we do have stereotypes until we can put faces to the names of Lutheran, Episcopalean etc. Peace and joy in this new year.