Monday, December 30, 2019

No solo voices in a choir. . .

One of the constant challenges of the modern age is to rein in the rampant individualism that is a threat to truth as well as to unity.  It is not only personal.  It can also be encountered on different levels.  Among Lutherans it has taken shape in the elevation of district (or synod in case of the ELCA) to the detriment of the unity of the larger church.  This individualism has also raised up the individual congregation and pastor above the unity of the larger whole.  While some use the theological cover of adiaphora, the truth is that this is far beyond differences in ceremony.  How we will address this idea of the church as a federation of semi-autonomous units will be the test of our time.

From the perspective of the Missouri Synod, individual districts see themselves as free to keep or, for all intents and purposes, to ignore the resolutions of the Synod in convention.  So we end up with great differences when it comes to the role of lay ministers (deacons), close(d) communion, governance (with many adopting the so-called Carver governance structure), and the like.  Some would rather raise up their own people to the office (SMP pastors) than trust the seminaries to form pastors for the church.  Even if these are not quite said in such blunt terms, the practice and intent in these matters is unmistakable.

Within Missouri, the congregation as the real manifestation of church has been used to give the congregation autonomy to ignore the covenants that go with synodical membership.  So the parish is free to structure itself without the traditional lay participation that is Missouri's history and to use self-perpetuating boards with minimal input from the larger congregation.  The parish and pastor are free to abandon Lutheran in their public identity and, in effect, to hide the confessional identity from those whom they would serve.  The congregation and pastor can disregard the hymnal and agenda (except, perhaps, in installations of ministers) and adopt a non-liturgical worship style that departs from the liturgical identity of our confession.  The pastor can disregard and ignore the lectionary and substitute his choice for the texts that will be heard on Sunday morning.  The congregation has even attempted to bypass the Synod when it comes to the sending of foreign missionaries.

While there are certainly attempts to give theological cover to such things, the reality is that both districts and congregations are applying the radical individualism that has taken over our culture.  The Synod, however, is not a collection of solo voices but a choir of voices singing together the same melody of witness and praise.  We forget this fact to our harm and once the genie is out of the bottle, it is very hard to contain.  This is the other side of the individualism that places personal experience and judgment over Scripture, creed, and confession to decide not simply what is meaningful but what is ultimately true at all. 

Lest we think we are alone in this struggle, Pope Francis has created the same kind of confusion in Rome with the passive approval to synodality in which it may appear that Rome not only allows but encourages regions, conferences of bishops, countries, and dioceses to act independently of the rest of the Roman Church with respect to things from the the text of the mass to the role of women to the celibate priesthood.  Certainly this is what the German bishops have largely bought into and are promoting in the wake of the Amazonia Synod.

Now Lutherans have no pope (other than the voters assembly as some describe it) and we are in a very different position than Rome, but the same individualism is at work in both.  In the end, it will result in a weak and shallow church wherever the individual voices drown out the choir.  In a choir the older voices mentor the younger but they sing together, the sum of the parts greater than any individual part.  Forgetting the voices of the past and in love with our moment in the spotlight, the church will devolve into actors on a stage playing the parts they want to play, without a common script, and with the presumption that God is happy when everyone does what is right in their own mind.  But it does not take long to read out that turned out in the past and what it will lead to in the future.

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