Originally posted April 30, 2012, at Conversations on the Church’s Vocation in the Public World. Republished with permission of the author.
On April 30, 25 years ago, Burton and I were in Columbus, Ohio, attending the Constituting Convention of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). We drove from Dubuque, Iowa. Yes, I was teaching here at Wartburg then. Burton was just beginning what would become his 15-year pastorate at Grace Lutheran Church in East Dubuque. I had been on three task forces over five years in preparation for the formation of the ELCA. And, perhaps more significantly, Burton and I had been part of all three of the Lutheran church bodies that were coming together.
We were at that time pastors in the American Lutheran Church. Each of us had entered the Lutheran church(es), as teenagers, hearing the gospel in The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. We had been part of the schism in that church body in the 1970s, like hundreds of others, finding ourselves outside of the church when it excluded those who had a more open and inclusive view of theology, mission and ministry. That exile produced the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches.
When living in New England we were in Lutheran Church in America-land and I served for a year a Lutheran Church in America congregation. So we wanted to be present those days 25 years ago when the people in those three church bodies, of which we had been a part during the three decades of our adult lives, were coming together to form a new Lutheran church. Coincidently, while looking in my file cabinet for something else, I discovered a file folder which had the program for the Constituting Convention and the folder for the Festival Eucharist.
Also coincidently, this is my week to preach and preside at Eucharist here in the Wartburg Seminary Chapel: Wednesday, May 2, the very day of the Festival Service. So we will be using texts and prayers from that service. Here’s the handout I will provide our student body, many of whom were not even born when the ELCA began:
Three Lutheran church bodies, — the American Lutheran Church, the Lutheran Church in America and the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches — came together April 30-May 3, 1987, in Columbus, Ohio, officially to “convene” the ELCA. Beginning in 1982, hundreds of people worked for five years on The Commission for a New Lutheran Church and its many committees and tasks forces to prepare, not for a “merger,” but for something new.
The convention would make decisions that would enable the church to begin Jan. 1, 1988. May 2 was the Festival Eucharist. The announcement read: “The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is now in place; the Holy Spirit has been continuing the effort to bring unity to the Body of Christ we are now part of a larger communion and are being given new opportunities for usefulness in God’s holy Church. We have gathered in this place to give praise to God for grace and salvation. We have assembled here to offer thanks for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and to renew those vows which bind us together as the Servant of God. Dear friends in Christ: Lift up your hearts. Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.”
At the Constituting Convention the three church bodies brought water in three vessels to the one font. The new church received the Presentation of the current Roster of Congregations, and the Presentation of the current Roster of Clergy. Not having been able to come to agreement on the report on the task force on Specific Ministries on the various lay rosters of the three church bodies, those rosters were frozen for six years and a “Study on the Nature of Ministry” was authorized.
The ELCA elected its first bishop. By the third ballot the top four names were: David Preus, William Lazareth, Barbara Lundblad and Herbert Chilstrom; Chilstrom would be elected. Previous to the convention it had been decided that the ELCA would be less hierarchical, more diverse and open to all voices. Representation principles would provide for more equal numbers of women and men on boards, committees and at assemblies, broader representation of laity and of people of color. This would provide a substantial change. The structure of the church would be broad and interactive; there were “expressions” of the church: congregation, conference, synod, region and churchwide (rather than “national”). The convention made a final decision on the site for churchwide offices — not Milwaukee, but Chicago.
Other significant business included election of the vice president, secretary, editor of the as-yet-unnamed church periodical, the first Church Council, boards and committees, and adoption of a budget. The convention decided about Inter-Lutheran Cooperation and Lutheran World Federation membership. They would study continuing ELCA membership in the World Council of Churches and the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA. The convention accepted the recommendation of the task force on theological education: all eight seminaries would come into the new church.
Those assembled saw, “Why” — a mission drama and had a Birth Day Party and committed themselves “in the Unity of the Spirit” to “One Church Made New.”
Find a link to the author’s blog Conversations on the Church’s Vocation in the Public World at Lutheran Blogs.