Since its formation in 1988, the ELCA has been schizophrenic on the matter of ecumenical relationships. Early on, it pushed very forcefully for "full-communion" agreements, in which partner churches not only recognize the Gospel in one another, but agree to share clergy and other ministries when it is appropriate. This pushes a lot of buttons deep down in the Lutheran psyche, though. We tend to worry about our identity. A lot.
One agreement, with the Moravians, caused only a little angst; after all, there aren't really that many Moravians in the world, and, golly, "Moravia" sounds comfortingly Teutonic. There was more fuss over a deal with three Reformed churches, and sensibly so. We have been arguing forcefully (albeit with comparative civility) since Marburg, and the Formula of Agreement simply acknowledged the argument, declared it non-divisive, and moved on, rather like a prim auntie who doesn't care why the kids are fighting but wants them to simmer down here at the zoo. Or something.
The real pyrotechnic display accompanied the Lutheran agreement with the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America (as it is officially known here at the Egg). Whoa, Nellie, was that a big 'un. This was a classic Lutheran grudge match, in which all the skeletons of history, theology and class anxiety that rattle around in our collective closet came tumbling out, sword in hand. Comically, the fight was almost entirely inter nos -- nobody asked the Episcopalians what they thought, or much cared when they offered opinions. (A few Anglo-Catholics adopted the haughty -- and misinformed -- antiLutheran line of the old Tractarians, only to discover that nobody on either side was listening to them).
Now come the quirky colonial stepchildren of Canterbury. "Baptists who can read," goes the old slur. We've been talking, officially, since 1977. But what do we really know about them? Most Lutherans have a soft spot for the Wesleys -- good hymns, good preaching, in the Pietist vein; and yet John took his Anglican orders pretty seriously, and never intended the schism to occur, which sounds a little like Luther. That's one for each of the two main Lutheran camps. On the other hand, John Wesley had an Arminian streak, which ticked off the Calvinist Anglicans pretty badly. Augustus ("Rock of Ages") Toplady called him a "rancorous hater of the Gospel-system." That doesn't sound good. On the third hand, Methodists have signed on the the Lutheran-Roman Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification.
An agreement with the Methodists does have a couple of noteworthy elements. It would be the ELCA's first full-communion agreement with a principally American church body, and the first with a church body that was numerically much larger than itself. In a sense, it is a way to move beyond the dialectics of the Reformation, and engage a major player in post-Reformation American Christianity. If that's really something we want to do.
So. The Magdalene's Egg Ecclesiastical Throw-Down Betting Pool is now open. Will the ELCA's 2009 Churchwide Assembly give a collective sigh of fatigue, vote the agreement up, and then move on as if nothing had ever happened? Will there be a bitter fight, pitting Lutheran Forum against WordAlone? Will the vote be deferred, and if so how many times? At which point will Missouri take some money from its Schwan Fund to publish a book declaring us all apostate? (Because you know they will.)
One feels a little sad for the poor Methodists, who have no idea what is coming.