Saturday, February 27, 2010

Off to a Bad Start

After having fibbed a bit to its members regarding the timeline for schism, the New ALC is now roaring forward with its plans to reconfigure Lutheranism. Well, lurching forward.

First, let's put this in context. According to the last figures released by the ELCA, 188 congregations have voted to leave the ELCA. Another 64 congregations, presumably very conservative ones, have raised the matter for congregational vote, and chosen to remain. Of the 188 which are definitely leaving, some will affiliate with the New ALC, others with Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ, and some with both. Others will affiliate with some of the existing micro-denominations, and -- in the true spirit of tax revolt -- a few may choose to declare themselves "independent," and keep their dang benevolence dollars at home.

So let's begin by saying that 200 or so congregations, divided among several possible new homes, doesn't promise an especially large or powerful dissident movement. The Wisconsin Synod, which scarcely figures in serious discussions about Lutheranism in the US and is virtually unknown abroad, has about 1200 congregations and a bit under 400k members. So if the New ALC combines all the current dissenters and then sextuples their numbers, it will be roughly as large as another minor Lutheran body.

A more apt comparison, of course, is to the AELC. It was another dissenting movement from within a major Lutheran body, the origins of which derive directly from a specific churchwide gathering, the 1973 LC-MS assembly (and the subsequent 1974 house-cleaning at Concordia, St. Louis). The AELC was formed in 1976, and amounted to 250 congregations and 4% of the LC-MS membership. Two things are worth noting: (1) that it took a while to assemble the final number of congregations, and the ELCA shook expect to lose churches to these dissenting groups for at least the next three years, especially as the alternatives materialize more fully; and (2) that the AELC never amounted to much. It was simply too small to envision a meaningful independent existence, and served primarily as a means for former Missourians to find a home in, and influence the creation of, the emerging ELCA.

Given the numbers so far, it is fair to ask whether the New ALC will (1) ultimately become the largest of the Lutheran micro-denominations, somewhere south of Wisconsin, or whether (2) its existence will never be more than transitory, as immediately after its formation it begins to seek permanent partnership with (and influence over) other groups. Time will tell; we cannot.

But second, let's see what the New ALC says for itself, now that it has released a vision statement. And in fairness, let's say up front that a vision statement is a long way from a constitution. We're not even quite sure how this document was created -- that is, whether it reflects the vision of a genuinely representative deliberative body, or a few strong-willed individuals. But here's a quick look:

1. Intimate relation to CORE. Over and over, the document describes an NALC that "look[s] to CORE for resources." We're not quite sure what this means in practice, but making an interest group your primary partner strikes us as a strange opening move. Imagine what the ELCA would look like if it replaced its own ministry units with Lutherans Concerned or the ALPB. (Or both, which could be really fun to watch from a safe distance.)

2. "Congregationally-focused." This is the truly old-ALC provision, and it is quite reasonable. Many, many Lutherans see the congregation as the only part of the church that really matters, and they point to their minimalist reading of AC 7-9 as proof. Their reading is wrong, but it is common.

Congregational focus means, in part, that assemblies and so forth will include the entire clergy roster and at least one representative from every congregation. Leadership in the New ALC seems to be assuming no more than modest growth, because otherwise those assemblies could be unmanageable, not to mention expensive. And if in time it is forced to back down from its commitment to representation from every single congregation, the howls of outrage will sound like this: "We left the ELCA because it was big and bureaucratic and wasn't listening to our congregation -- and now you're taking away our voice, too!"

3. Piggybacking on other ministries. So how, you might ask, will a smallish new body engage in mission beyond the doors of its existing congregations? After all, that sort of thing usually requires some infrastructure to coordinate -- just the "bureaucracy" that they are complaining about. And in fact, the New ALC has an idea.

They're going to borrow somebody else's bureaucrats. Rather than start their own publishing, relief and global mission units, they will simply plan to farm those out to "existing Lutheran parachurch organizations," such as -- and these are a few of those they mention -- WordAlone, World Mission Prayer League, [formerly-Lutheran] Youth Encounter, East European Missions Network, Lutheran World Relief, Lutheran Disaster Response, ALPB, CrossWays They also plan to use "faithful resources from other Lutheran church bodies," which presumably means anything that Augsburg publishes without the word "gay" in it.

Not a bad idea, honestly. Outsourcing is cheap and easy. Frankly, we'll all be doing it in a few years.

But this gets a little harder once we start talking about theological education, especially for pastors. The statement contains three paragraphs on this subject, and together they say absolutely nothing. Running a seminary costs beaucoup bucks, at least if you want accreditation, and there is no way for a micro-denomination to start its own. Students can, of course, be trained at schools run by other denominations, or by none. It hardly matters, though, since at least for a few years the New ALC's clergy roster will consist entirely of pastors whose education was provided, and heavily subsidized, by the denomination they are leaving.

4. Who gets screwed here? The things above are reasonable enough. They don't describe a church we would like to join, but they do describe a church we can recognize. There are a couple of areas, though, where the New ALC vision statement makes one raise a skeptical eyebrow:

(a) Women in ministry. It says that "the NALC and Lutheran CORE will recognize both women and men in the office of ordained clergy, while acknowledging the diversity of opinion that exists within the Christian community on this subject."

Well, yes, there certainly is diversity of opinion; most Christians worldwide have a hard time even imagining ordained women. But why mention this in your own founding documents? Unless, that is, you want to leave open the possibility of close relationships with some of the many church bodies that don't want women in the pulpit. And if that is what you want, then how serious are you about the ordained women in your midst? Could it be you are simply accepting them, for a while, out of necessity -- and that over time they will find themselves sidelined?

Remember that the New ALC's Anglican brother, the ACNA, seems prepared to welcome women as pastors but not bishops, and you can see the dim outline of a shark beneath the surface of the water. Along with the new-style sex conservatives who want gays to stay in their dang place, there are also mixed some of the old-fashioned sex conservatives who want the women to keep their heads covered and their mouths shut. They've been unhappy for a long time, and this is their chance; meanwhile, the new-stylers may not like it, but they need the old-timers to build even a modest coalition.

(b) The ecumenical movement. The New ALC wants to be part of the LWF, which is nice. it doesn't want to be part of the World and National Councils of Churches, presumably because these organizations are full of gay-loving, women-ordaining liberals. They also envision unspecified "new forms of ecumenical dialogue," which could actually be quite interesting.

The problem, of course, is that there is a certain kind of Lutheranism which simply can't abide ecumenical agreements. Talk is fine, even works are fine, but for an actual agreement on matters of faith, the bar is set so high -- absolute agreement, not just about the documents but about their interpretation -- that it becomes effectively unjumpable. Anybody who remembers the anti-Episcopalian battles of the 1990s has seen this sort of Lutheranism in action. And unless we are misreading the situation, that kind of Lutheranism is heavily represented in the New ALC.

Moreover, serious ecumenical dialogue with organized partners usually requires a certain level of, um, bureaucracy. Not just to make travel arrangements, but to assure that subsequent agreements, if reached, can be received by the actual membership of the churches.

Our bet is that, for both these reasons, the New ALC will never be able to reach a meaningful agreement on theological matters that is received by its own membership and the membership of a correspondent church body. So in effect, those who join it now withdraw from the ecumenical movement altogether.

(c) The ELCA. It is mentioned 17 times in the document. WELS and the LC-MS are mentioned zero times each. At least on the surface, the New ALC perceives itself as existing in relation to the ELCA

And indeed, the most disturbing thing about this document is the extremely fuzzy boundaries that it seems to envision. CORE, like LCMC, isn't quite sure whether or not it wants to be a denomination or a parachurch organization, and some of that fuzziness creeps over into the New ALC. The result is paragraphs like this:

For confessing Lutherans [note: is there really any other kind?] who will remain within the ELCA and ELCIC, Lutheran CORE will offer an alternate ecclesial family, where they can connect with each other and with confessing Lutherans in the NALC and other church bodies. Some will choose to coordinate witness initiatives within the ELCA or ELCIC through this community. [i.e., stick around and stir up further dissent] Many will choose to organize collaborative ministry initiatives with their partners in Lutheran CORE. Mindful of the objective of ongoing unity, the NALC will conduct many of its ministry initiatives with and through its partners in the Lutheran CORE community. [In other words, CORE owns you now, and don't ever forget it].

This makes CORE the parachurch and NALC a new church body -- a denomination -- albeit one that is the creature of the parachurch. Sort of as if InterVarsity began its own franchise operation.

But then there's this:

Congregations of the NALC may also be members of other Lutheran church bodies. Individuals who remain members of an ELCA or ELCIC congregation may also join a NALC congregation. ....

Some ... congregations and individuals may choose dual membership in the ELCA and the NALC. Others may be members of Lutheran CORE on an individual, congregational or partnership basis.

Here, membership in the New ALC isn't necessarily an alternative to membership in the ELCA. It can also be an add-on. This is a little confusing.

What it sounds like, frankly, is a complicated effort to have your cake and eat it too. CORE leaders know that there are a lot of unhappy people in the ELCA just now, but they also know that very few of those people are unhappy enough to create a new church body. It's a lot of work, it's expensive, and -- far more important -- it means cutting important ties of friendship and ministry.

So the strategy is to provide a little cubbyhole into which the deeply disaffected can squeeze themselves, at least for a while, but which can also present itself not as a new body but as a network of the like-minded. "Well, sure, we're a 'denomination,' if you want to use that old-fashioned word. But only if that's what you want us to be. For you."

Maybe we at the Egg are trapped in a 19th-century ecclesiastical mindset, but we really don't think you can play for the Yankees and the Red Sox at the same time. We have visited several churches over the years that were dually-aligned with the UCC and American Baptist Convention, and we simply cannot guess how they handle the delicate questions. But maybe they do, and you can.

In any case, what appears to be a highly deliberate strategy of organizing the congregations that won't leave the ELCA to stir up trouble while draining away the financial and human resources is, as we have said before, cynical and dishonorable. And that, in our opinion, gets the New ALC off to a very bad start.


PS (PSanafter-thought) said...

Having your cake and eating it too: does that mean "sort-of" leaving the ELCA but not foregoing one's pension/medical benefits?

Michael T. Hiller said...

You give short-shrift to the AELC, which was very active in the formation of the ELCA, and which has contributed no small number of pastors and bishops to the ELCA. The impetus for the AELC was progressive, whereas this new group is regressive. A big difference. Great article - thanks.

Fr. Michael T. Hiller

Father said...

You're very kind, but I'm afraid you may soon regret it.

The truth is that, although the AELC was indeed extremely influential in the creation of the ELCA and continues to provide a disproportionate number of prominent leaders, I take a pretty dim view of it all told.

Institutionally, the CNLC made too many compromises with the AELC, specifically on some of the issues that have been most troublesome for the ELCA. And at the psychological level, a disturbing number of the AELC's "best and brightest" seem to me like clinical narcissists. (And I say that, knowing how harsh it sounds, despite genuine friendship with and admiration for many other AELC pastors).

But you're right about the differences of substance between the AELC and the NALC. They couldn't be larger. Nor, so far as I can tell from a distance, could the differences in intellectual caliber among their leaders.

Anonymous said...

Nice reflections. I am ELCA to boot and not interested in leaving at all. Thrilled that our gay brothers and sisters are recognized and now able to be partnered and ordained as God calls them to preach and teach. But I disagree with your reflections on ecumenical agreements. CCM effectively raised the bar on what it means to be church (by requiring ordination in historic succession). According to 'that kind of Lutheranism,' the bar didn't need to be raised. We already had what we needed to be church together. I am one of 'those kind' of Lutherans (who wishes we hadn't raised the bar with CCM) -- who now finds the gay conversation entirely hilarious and ironic since the people who used to set the bar so low suddenly have raised it far higher than CCM did. The church, to this NewALC and all associated groups, is now defined by where one stands on sexuality and not by Christ. Really and truly a great - if not THE greatest - irony of contemporary church history.

Father said...

That's a fascinating perspective on the NALC people, and it certainly does reflect a deep inconsistency in their thinking.

Obviously, I disagree with you (and deeply) about CCM, which is a long argument for another time. The point is that the NALC people agree with you, which makes their current standards for church fellowship look a little reactive. Surprise!

Now, as to "the greatest irony of contemporary church history" -- well, I actually think that would make a great parlor game. Other reasonable contenders might include the theocon claim that John Paul "authoritatively interpreted" Vatican II, when most people saw him trying to bypass it, or the way Christianity is still treated as a "Western" religion when it originated in Asia and is now growing fastest in Africa.

Anonymous said...

Lutheranism attracts under 3% of people in Scandinavia; it's shrunk to under 4.6 million here in the US and the rate of membership loss is only increasing.
Why should anyone care about any of this?