Tuesday, September 22, 2009
Marching in Step... or Doing What Feels Right?
It seems to me that the choices often set forth for church unity are false ones indeed. On one hand are those who insist that if we walk together at all, we much march in step -- in other words there must be absolute uniformity. Missouri has a few of these who believe that in every chancel tape marks should outline where the Pastor stands and that every statement of faith must use the language of, say, the Brief Statement of 1932. On the other hand there are those who believe in the entrepreneurial spirit and, aside from some core basics, congregations and clergy should be free to structure, define, and practice as they see fit for their own circumstances. Those who march in step insist that every other alternative will lead to chaos and anarchy. Those who feel they should have the freedom and latitude to do what seems right insist that the only alternative is a gestapo church body in which everyone informs on the transgressions of others.
Of course, few are accurately characterized by either extreme... but there are legitimate questions raised by both sides. From those who wish more conformity, there is a legitimate question of where you draw the line between freedom and doing what is judged to be right for the moment or the situation... and... what is unacceptable? And who gets to draw that line?
We all have been in Lutheran congregations where anything goes, where worship is fruit basket upset from week to week, where you checked on the bulletin or sign post to make sure this was a Lutheran congregation or an LC-MS one, in particular. I know I have. I have sat through worship services without creed or Our Father, without the Sacrament or a regular order, without recognizable hymns or songs (at least to me), and without much Law or Gospel. No matter how careful some folks are in their exercise of freedom, there are those who will not be careful. Who tells them they have gone to far? Where is the line in the sand -- is it written and formal or, like one justice's definition of pornography "I cannot describe it but I know it when I see it..."
Lutheranism does not have structures that deal well with this authority and our congregational structure seems the antithesis of someone, anyone, saying to a congregation "Too far..." So those who advocate more conformity raise a legitimate question. We need to have boundaries. We need to be able to say to those who go beyond the pale of Lutheran identity, confession, and liturgical practice, "You are no longer one of us."
Those in favor of less conformity and more freedom to do what seems right, they do have a legitimate question. Congregations are different and the geographical settings of congregations are different. My home congregation on the plains of Nebraska and its stable but aging community of people generally related to one another at some point along history has a setting distinct from an inner city congregation on one of the coasts, a multi-lingual congregation of recent immigrant cultures, or even a suburban congregation in a place where Lutherans are largely unknown (like where I serve). This is not a matter of what works but of taking into account this setting in the structure of the parish, the liturgical life of that congregation, and the challenges facing their ministry.
We have said in our Lutheran Confessions that ceremonies may differ but we have not well defined what ceremonies might differ, what structures might differ, and within what tolerance those differences might be allowed or even encouraged. So again, we face the challenge of what differences are allowable among congregations walking together and who gets to define what is allowed and what is not.
Ideally, this is the distinct and specialized role of the Bishop (or Overseer if you have an aversion to the Biblical term). But most of our Bishops are not Bishops -- they are Presidents elected every couple of years less to exercise authority than to serve as problem solvers, visioners, and fund raisers. Personally, you could not pay me enough to do this. They are called in whenever conflict flares, they cast their vision before the Church as saviors who have the keys to reverse the slow decline of Missouri, and they serve as pitch men for Ablaze, Fan into Flame, District budgets, mission support, scholarship for church workers, etc... They administer but they do not oversee. They are not in the parishes enough to know what is going on in them, they do not really know the clergy well enough to know who they are and what they do in the parish, and they spend most of their time in meetings local and otherwise. We have saddled them with an unpleasant role and so many of those who might be great Bishops are neither attracted to the job of District President nor willing to serve there.
In addition, we have structured this administrative group into a Council that does not vote or play a visible role in the national conventions of our denomination. I am not sure that administrators should be given such place but if we had Bishops acting as Bishops I would want to hear from them and I would want them to have great impact upon the church body as a whole.
So this is Missouri's dilemma and, without a solution, this is why there will be battle after battle between those who insist upon conformity and those who insist upon freedom. The pendulum will swing back and forth slightly, but the impetus is clearly with those who wish freedom. Over time congregations will become more and more isolated, money will be spent more at home and less to the national church, the colleges and seminaries will be semi-autonomous organizations, and parachurch groups will fill in the gaps (by organizing for cause or ideology)...
That is not what the Church needs... but such is the conundrum we find ourselves in... We are still at heart a reform movement looking for the Roman Catholic Church to heed the call to reform and less like a church body that stands alone -- though in our hearts we feel pretty good about being Lutheran (even if we might define that word very differently). And, by the way, the prospect of Rome accepting these reforms is not so promising either. So here we are. Trying to live as a congregational but not congregationalistic church, trying to be Confessional but not sure how to define Confessional, trying to be American but not just a mirror of the latest American poll or trend, trying to be democratic but not with the Word of God... It is not a good place to be... but, if there is any consolation, there are worse places to be...