A British scholar explained why he chose to be a historian. His explanation works for me and may be useful to others. He was a historian, he said, “because I find the world so very odd, and I want to know how it got that way.”
We can spend the 25th anniversary of the ELCA pondering how “odd” many features of it are and then move on. We can then think of Abraham Lincoln’s word: “If we could first know where we are and whither we are tending, we might better judge what to do and how to do it.” And learning “where we are” depends in no small part on “where we’ve been.”
Assessing that might mean not only remembering — one does at anniversaries — but also calls for some creative forgetting. I started out reporting for The Christian Century 57 years ago by covering denominational conventions. Many good things happened in them, but much was forgettable, as it is in the ELCA and its synods.
In 1960 I attended an ecumenical gathering that was formulating a declaration of intention: that we churches were seeking a “fully committed fellowship.” The typist of our press release was used to bureaucratic language, and got it wrong: We were seeking a “full committee fellowship.”
For us to do this assessing will mean focusing on this church’s pre-history, up to 1988. How odd it is — isn’t it? — that Lutheran immigrants, who were everywhere generally united in their confessions of faith — Luther’s catechisms and the Augsburg Confession being prime — arrived so disunited. Blame ignorance or suspicion of each other on Europe, which sent people with diverse customs, liturgies, hymns and fears.
I used to collect the names of Lutheran bodies in pre-merger days. My favorite is one called “The Anti-Missourian Brotherhood” (1887-) which merged four or five times until becoming part of the ELCA. It had plenty of company. Now we sing, “We are not divided, all one body we …”
During the merging years I did my turn as church historian-lecturer to many former factions who were dealing with their pasts. Sometimes I would describe what their fore-fathers (and we do mean fathers) fought about. These heirs were all sure that it was important, but they could not remember what side their ancestors were on, or what that side meant. Creative forgetting can be healing and liberating.
ELCA history is characterized less by singular events than by trends and forces, Thus, we cannot understand ELCA history unless we locate it in the surrounding cultures.
First, it was born in the decades when Americans were on an anti-institutional binge, many of them treating their churches as “Home Depots for Do-It-Yourself” religions. So the ELCA and its elements have had to spend much energy debating how to manifest community when individualism was ruling all around us.
Second: In recent years it has suddenly dawned on the ELCA that our church and its kin are declining in numbers. Many individuals and groups in the ELCA know precisely why this is occurring, usually charging our leaders and assembly voters with being uniquely unfaithful.
Take a look, however: Not only “mainline Protestants” are suffering disaffection. Except for the influx of Latino people, Catholicism is at least as bad off as Protestantism, its pews emptier, its clergy devastatingly short of numbers and talents for supplying response to needs. Evangelicalism has energies that have kept it stronger, but the same trends that affect “us” affect “them.”
Blame the decline on the loss of taste for community, observed by sociologists. Blame super-individualist “spirituality,” which is better at delivering personal kicks than ministries to those in need. Blame popular culture, with its distractions and lures. Blame demography: Families are less stable, children are fewer. Blame the Internet and its twittering, tweeting and texting distractions. Blame liberals. Blame conservatives. We have to be careful not to blame ourselves, as we are busy blaming each other — including in the ELCA.
Biblical scholar and leader Krister Stendahl once provided us with an angle of vision. He told us Lutherans, who sometimes act as if we have the patent and monopoly on the biblical doctrine of “justification by (grace through) faith,” that we will never understand the source document in God’s word and Paul’s words if we think that the apostle’s letters are chiefly about that doctrine.
No, said Stendahl, re-read the letters; they were written to people who were already and daily becoming justified. They simply could not live with each other. Most of the epistles deal with sluggards and sluggers within the churches. They needed to be refreshed through the gospel. As do we.
Yes, there have been events that marked these 25 years. For example, dealing with the increasing number of partner churches, including the Episcopal Church with its bishops, evoked passions. More recently and likely for years to come (“ whither we are tending ”) we have shared and will participate in unavoidable and costly struggles over sexuality and gender.
In Stendahl’s terms, we often just can’t live with each other. However, one has to note, or gets to note, that these struggles pay off in newly vital missions and understandings. The conflicts are unavoidable, but they can be turned into opportunities for growth.
Ask yourself: Would you seek or find communion in the church described by warring factions in the ELCA? A couple million Christians do so while they responsibly pay some attention to what the factions are shouting. Most of them hear the gospel and respond to it in the sacramental and programmatic life of parishes, synods, assemblies and voluntary associations.
A fully committed fellowship “does” some things described by Edgar R. Trexler in “High Expectations.” He invites ELCA members and the world to look in on the youth gatherings of tens of thousands of young people gathered in assembly under ELCA auspices. This in a time when the youth and the ongoing church often write each other off.
He bids us to look at other features of ELCA life after 25 years, as we participate in Lutheran Services that rank among the highest charitable and service endeavors in the nation. He and we can point to immigration and relief services, to the care and feeding of the hungry. To youth and congregational and other participation in endless activities that would not occur to us if we were lonely “spiritual” individuals. In never-enough yet thousands of adult forums, Bible classes and Sunday school activities people take the word of God seriously.
Through recessions, economic bubble-bursts, and battles in a polarized nation, thousands upon thousands remain good stewards and care for others. Despite hard times for higher education, theologians and mentors in the practices of Christian faith and community go about their work imaginatively.
I stare at a sign on my study wall: “NO WHINING.” No one has ever become a part of a Christian community in order to expedite whining, griping or moaning. Such acts abound without our needing to enhance them. Isn’t it odd that when complaining we have chosen that form of “down” discourse, thinking wrongly that it is “prophetic”?
This in a world that needs churches that can tell and embody stories of the faith and work of Christians who respond to the loving gospel of Jesus Christ. Where are we, after 25 years? Whither are we tending? As we develop answers to those questions, we might better know what to do and how to do it. With, of course, but really not “of course,” the Holy Spirit’s counsel.