Sunday, July 21, 2019

Rewriting History. . .

For the Missouri Synod brand of Lutheranism, nearly everything is dated either prior to or post 1974 and the walkout of most of the St. Louis Seminary professors.  Though for some of us it was history that we actually participated in, for most of our clergy it is more and more an historical footnote.  As the numbers of folks who were there fade from the scene, it will be left to others to decide exactly what happened and why and what are the lasting effects of it all.  I have no charge to interpret history but it seems to me that there are those who are moving the whole thing further and further away from issues of truth and doctrine and more and more into personalities, priorities, and practices.  While some of these are certainly involved, it would be a scary thing to think that a once homogeneous and focused church could be undone with a few arrogant leaders, different ideas on how to do the same things, and agendas in conflict.

Personality is an easy one to grant.  We are sinners.  So were the leaders on each side of the Missouri conflict.  No one is without guilt -- whether key player or bench warmer in the fight.  That said, it paints an especially terrible portrait of folks like J. A. O. Preus or John Tietjen if this is simply or even primarily a power struggle between two people and their parties.  I have every confidence that personalities played a role but it was a bit part in the big drama of Missouri's unpleasantness.

Priorities is also an easy one to grant.  Missouri has always been somewhat inwardly focused in comparison to other Lutherans more than happy to overlook differences in order to focus upon commonalities (whether on the national stage in cooperative agencies or mergers or the international scene and its federations).  There were many in Missouri (think back to 1944) who wanted to see their church body explore the world more fully and enter into stage of powers and players.  This came to a head in Missouri some years earlier in the Mission Affirmations of 1965.  But even this is not the reason for it all.  Missouri had wrestled with those who think better to partner with no one than someone who might have something wrong.  We still do.  We have lived through such debates without schism before and still are held together by glue that, at least for now, seems strong enough to prevent another exodus.

Practices is also an easy one to grant.  My own early affection for some of the people and their vision of our life together was based upon practices such as weekly Eucharist, full ceremonial and vestments, clerical collars, and a richer practice of our hymn tradition.  It is no secret that many of those who walked were also voices calling Missouri to remember our Confession when it comes to such things (weekly Divine Service, baptismal focus, private confession, ceremony, ritual, vesture, and majestic music).  As someone who grew up in a congregation in which the Sacrament was quarterly, the liturgy was exactly the same whether in Advent, Lent, Easter or the Trinity season, and the hymns were played without any imagination, I was blown away by the prospect of a church life focused on more rather than less.  Though some still blame Seminex for the liturgical renewal movement in Missouri, there were plenty of very conservative voices pleading the same cause and this was not the legacy left by those who departed.

Perhaps the most flawed way of looking at Missouri's past is to place the current context into the same framework as the 1960s and 1970s.  The Seminex crowd was not the missional movement in embryonic form and those on the other side were not the confessional movement we have today.  Things have changed.  Certainly there are affinities in current parties in Missouri and our history but these are not exact nor complete parallels.  Nobody on the Seminex side was advocating a marriage of Lutheran doctrine and evangelical practice then as some are today.  The non-denominational movement was in its infancy in that time period and contemporary Christian music was not a thing.  While it was clear that those who left were more willing to talk about change, it is not credible or accurate to say that they orchestrated the changes we see in American Lutheranism today.  Carl Braaten has detailed how the disbursement of Seminex into the seminaries of the ELCA affected things but these were individuals who had long ago moved beyond the issues of the 1960s and 1970s.

Still unfashionable but I think more accurate is the fact that the Seminary in St. Louis (and also, to
some extent the Seminary in Springfield) had moved past the pews and pulpits of Missouri too quickly and the distance was palpable even in the 1950s and 1960s.  It came to a head for a variety of reasons but the roots of it all are unmistakable.  This was a doctrinal dispute.  Some of it had to do with the doctrine of the Word of God but there were other areas in which the confession was being stretched.  In the end Missouri won the battle but not the war and the fronts shifted to other areas -- ones that we have found ourselves increasingly powerless to address to bring about harmony and concord.  In addition, the fruits of decades of explosive growth had tested the informal ties that had long bound Missouri together.  Family connections and central educational system for clergy were the things that contributed greatly to Missouri's identity and unity and these ties that bind were being tested to the limits in a church body that doubled in size in a rather short period of time.  But it is clear that Missouri was bursting at the seams with change that had not been formally assimilated and that by the time of the walk out there were different groups heading in different directions and moving at very different speeds. 

In the end, it was also a crisis of structure and ecclesiastical supervision.  In terms of structure, our beloved Synod (as many once said) became, in the minds of some, a confederation of semi-autonomous districts who were free to act somewhat independently of each other but still remain together as a Synod.  The firing of District Presidents who dared to violate the conventions of who should be ordained and rostered did not end this crisis but only delayed it and still we wrestle today with those who have decided that Synod is not what it was formed to be.  There are many quite willing to remake us into a loose structure in which national leadership has prominent place but little real authority and Synod is less important that district.  We are facing also the tensions between a congregational church body and a congregationalist one.  Hidden in all of this is the elephant in the room -- supervision of doctrine and practice.  Who does it is one issue but how it is done is another.  Many are more willing to tolerate and even embrace a diversity that would have been unthinkable a generation or two before 1974.  We are still in conflict over these things and every Synod Convention since that pivotal history has had some form of ecclesiastical supervision and discipline as an issue on the agenda.

This year was the 45th anniversary of that pivotal event in Missouri and we still are not sure what all happened or why it happened when it did and what impact that past has had directly on the troubles we face.  As a church body we remain living in the shadow of that period even though the players are mostly long dead and it is considered ancient history by much of our membership and clergy.  Perhaps we are doomed to remember it differently and interpret it as think fit but I fear that this ambiguity over our past will only contribute to confusion and conflict we face in the present day.  At some point we need to figure it out and move on.


Anonymous said...

It's quite obvious what happened and why it happened. There is no mystery to it. This book lays out everything that happened and why.

Anonymous said...

One other aspect needs to be mentioned: LCMS's flirtation with the ALC starting in 1960 likely moved a number of pastors away from doctrinal unity. That influence was not easily removed and may have even pushed the separation by Seminex. How many pastors today in the LCMS would unequivocally subscribe to the "Brief Statement"? I realize that this is not the Book of Concord, but it adequately defines the Lutheran doctrine that Walther and Peiper held to.

Carl Vehse said...

Anonymous on July 21, 2019 at 4:56 PM: How many pastors today in the LCMS would unequivocally subscribe to the "Brief Statement"?

Given Bylaw 1.8, you probably won't get many publicly negative answers here from Missouri Synod pastors, unless they use the same "Anonymous" pseudonym that Romanists or the squad of unhinged crackpots use.

Anonymous said...

Says the guy using a fake name...."unhinged crackpot" indeed.