Sunday, June 06, 2010

His "Pre-Existing Condition"

Philip Johnson, formerly an ELCA pastor, was recently ordained as a Roman Catholic priest. A rather sweet article, linked above, talks about it, and includes one funny tidbit:
Although Johnson is the second married priest in its history (the Rev. George McCormick, a former Episcopal priest, served from 1984 until his death in 2000), the Camden [N.J.] Diocese is still learning how to fit the couple in.
"The insurance forms for priests don't have a line for 'wife,' " Janet Johnson said. "I told them I'm his 'preexisting condition.' "
"Philip Johnson" is a fairly common name -- there are two presently listed within the ELCA ministerium. For clarification, this article is about Philip Max Johnson, who served parishes in Jersey City and is well-known in evangelical catholic circles both for his Lutheran Forum articles and for his leadership within the Society of the Holy Trinity. He switched sides in 2006.

Because we do not know Johnson except by reputation (and little enough even of that), we knew none of the biographical information described in the article. For example, we didn't know that he had been graduated in 1979 from a seminary in New Jersey for which we ourselves have a grudging affection. Nor did we know that during his seminary education, and for many years afterward, he was not a Lutheran but a member of the Church of Christ (we presume this means the Campbellites, but will be happy for a correction). Johnson, with his wife Janet, left the church in which he had been raised and ordained to become Lutheran only in 1986.

We did not know this. Yet we are not surprised.

It has been our observation that a great many ELCA pastors who leave for other ecclesiastical pastures have had the prior experience of leaving their church in a huff because it did not measure up to their standards. Typically, this was the LCMS in the 1970s, and we certainly blame nobody for choosing to leave it. But it does mark them as perpetual pilgrims, seeking a purity they are unlikely to find this side of Paradise.

The otherwise respectable article, by the way, contains one ludicrous whopper which must not be allowed to go unchallenged:
At the time of [Philip and Janet Johnson's] conversion, mainstream Lutheranism seemed headed toward rapprochement with the Roman Catholic Church. But when the main Lutheran sects grew liberal and allowed female clergy, the faiths drifted apart.

Say what? First off, the timeline: by 1986, the Lutheran church that Johnson entered had already been ordaining women for more than 15 years. In 1986, US Lutherans were busily forging the ELCA, and rapprochement with one another was quite challenging enough, thank you. Second, define "rapprochement." Because the two bodies have lived uneasily with one another for centuries, but by far their greatest shared ecumenical achievement, the Joint Declaration on Justification, was signed in 1999. Yes, the pace of these things is glacial -- but still, JDDJ is probably the closest to a "rapprochement" yet reached between the Roman church and any of her Reformation daughters, and one can only imagine that there will be more to come. So what does this paragraph actually mean?

Well, it might mean that the Johnsons are very dim people, who in 1986 somehow didn't know about the ordination of women, and who actually imagined that a 450-year-old reform movement was a few short years away from declaring victory and going home. But from what little we know about Johnson, he is a sharp cookie indeed. So what, then?

We strongly suspect that a well-intentioned reporter simply repeated the self-serving and sententious tommyrot that his source fed him. Which is why fact-checking is such a good idea.

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