South India provoked a crisis, and crises in the Church of England follow a well-defined pattern. A situation arises which is hopelessly compromising to the Anglo-Catholic position, but which has the support of the vast bulk of the Church of England. Anglo-Catholics protest against it without avail; some leave the Establishment and become Catholics, but the majority hang on, apparently under the impression that by protesting they clear themselves from complicity. Eventually they get used to it and forget all about it, and start talking excitedly about the next crisis, which they say really will split the Church of England. For the Anglo-Catholic conscience is an elastic which will stretch to almost any lengths if it is stretched sufficiently gradually – and no one understands this better than the Bishops. (Walton Hannah, The Anglican Crisis: The Church of South India, London: CTS, 1957, pp.18-19)Would that Hannah were writing about that which afflicts only the Anglo-Catholic conscience! His words are applicable to Lutherans as well. The decline of orthodox confessional Lutheranism hardly ever comes from a direct frontal assault but nearly always enters through the back door. It is hardly ever a sudden, bold act that stretches the limits of orthodox confessional Lutheranism to its breaking point but nearly always is a gradual stretching of that conscience in such way that we become accustomed to the error and it is no longer deemed "church dividing."
In Missouri's unpleasantness of the 1970s, we saw how the exile of a prominent and fairly popular seminary faculty and the unprecedented removal of some District Presidents resulted in the loss of a little over 100,000 people. What is remarkable is not that this many left but that no more left. If the "old" Missouri that the leaders of the "new" Missouri were attempting to change was so bad, why did not more leave? This was a cause not only about Biblical interpretation but had broad implications for mission, worship, and ecumenism.
The ELCA has take so many gradual steps over the years that the elastic of its orthodoxy has become relatively pliable. Why else would such a dramatic break with the past as took place in August of 2009 not lead to a larger schism than we have seen? While we have seen hundreds of congregations leave ELCA, one might have expected half the denomination to walk away over the decision to regularize GLBT relationships and clergy into that church body. Maybe such a mass exodus would have occurred had the action been taken in 1989 (twenty years prior). But not now. Why? Because the ELCA has seen the gradual expansion of orthodoxy by degree -- slowly and deliberately over the entire twenty years so that the actions of the CWA in 2009 seem reasonable and the logical conclusion to what has led up to them.
As Hannah has said: Eventually they get used to it and forget all about it, and start talking excitedly about the next crisis, which they say really will split the Church. As I have so often said, we wake up one day only to find the orthodoxy that we once presumed lost -- yet we cannot point to one single action that lost it. It was so gradual that we hardly noticed. We became increasingly comfortable with the incremental change and told ourselves that the next big issue would be the make or break one. But the big issue never came and the stretch in our elastic orthodoxy allowed the boundaries to become ever wider. Perhaps this is due in part to inertia. It is also the result of small steps that in and of themselves did not seem so bad. In testament to this, those leaving the ELCA are looking not for something closer to the church bodies that originally merged into this group but basically an ELCA minus the gay and lesbian actions of CWA 2009. If they settle for this, they are still only small steps away from where the ELCA already is.
Missouri's problem is less with convention actions (though there are issues there, such as the use of non-ordained in Word and Sacrament ministry) but with the gradual erosion of what was once expected in the Divine Service. Now it seems we are powerless to undo the confusion that reigns in Missouri parishes on Sunday morning. Still and all, we do not seem to have much stomach for addressing these divisive issues content, if you will, to make sure that it does not happen in my back yard. Yet unless we address these things, we will end up stretching our own confessional identity and orthodox doctrine and practice beyond what is recognizably Lutheran. If you do not believe me, check out the YouTube videos of what is happening in my own District in a place called LakePointe in Hot Springs, Arkansas.