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Letter to Episcopal bishops

from Jaynan Clark Egland and Mark Chavez

March 2003

Dear sisters and brothers in Christ,

Grace and peace to you from our Lord Jesus Christ.

We thank God for the warm partnership that Episcopalians and Lutherans have shared for 300 years in America. photo of Pastor Mark ChavezA layman in Montana commissioned a survey of our churches to discover the number of places where our churches were working together in mutual witness to the Gospel and service to the world when Called to Common Mission (CCM) was being considered. photo of Pastor Jaynan Clark EglandThere were over 1,000 places, evidence of how much our churches were already engaged in common mission prior to CCM’s approval.

As you may know, the WordAlone Network is a grassroots movement of congregations and individuals in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) that desires pulpit and altar fellowship with your church, but not under CCM’s requirements. You were told in the years leading up to your 2000 General Convention that there was little opposition to CCM in the ELCA. Yet our church remains deeply divided over CCM and our movement steadily grows. More than 110,000 people, in 45 states and 64 of 65 synods, are now affiliated with the WordAlone Network, either as individual members or through their congregation’s membership. Just this year, the number of member congregations surpassed 200 and is now at 217. Another 60 congregations are also involved in our movement.

There have been four non-episcopal ordinations in our church since the ELCA 2001 Churchwide Assembly approved the bylaw amendment allowing for such ordinations. This year the third occurred on January 26 and the fourth on March 16. We expect at least one more this spring. From what we hear from seminarians, there will continue to be a steady number of requests to be ordained by a pastor.

WordAlone strongly favors common mission and worship between our churches. The CCM disagreement is not about that. It is about our church adopting a practice under CCM that conflicts with the Lutheran interpretation of the Scriptures and the Lutheran confessions.

It is not just Lutherans in our movement who object to CCM. We asked Lutheran theologians from outside our movement and church to serve on a Theological Advisory Board. We created this board to provide a confessional Lutheran theological compass for the contemporary global context. We view these board members, and the members view themselves, as servants to the Lutheran churches worldwide. They are distinguished Lutheran theologians from four Lutheran churches in four countries on three continents. They are diverse in their background and experience. Until they gathered for the first time on November 16-17, 2002, some of them had never met each other. Our only expectations of their first meeting was that they would get acquainted with each other, and discuss how they might work together and help our movement provide continuing theological education.

Much to our surprise, they quickly decided that they wanted to make a confession centered on Jesus Christ and starting with the doctrine by which Lutherans believe the church stands or falls—justification by grace through faith alone. They decided to make their confession by focusing particularly on the implications of the doctrine of justification for ecclesiology. After two full days of intense discussion, they issued their confession, Admonition for the Sake of the True Peace and Unity of the Church (see enclosure). Dr. George W. Forell, one of the theologians on the advisory board, has written a Commentary on the Admonition that is also enclosed. We believe their confession is hopeful for unity within our church, and for an ecumenical partnership with your church that has integrity and respects both Episcopalian and Lutheran beliefs and practices.

The international theologians on the theological board especially do not understand why we in the ELCA agreed to a mandatory historic episcopate as a condition for unity and for sharing altar and pulpit fellowship. European Lutherans reached significant agreements with the Anglican church—the Scandinavians in the The Porvoo Common Statement and the Germans in The Meissen Declaration—that provide for mutual recognition of their ministries, and pulpit and altar fellowship without requiring Lutherans to accept a mandatory historic episcopate.

The Admonition calls for equal standing for differing ordination practices in the ELCA. Each new pastor would choose whether or not to be ordained by a bishop, and each new bishop would choose whether or not to be installed/ordained into an historic episcopate.

Synod assemblies in our church have passed resolutions every year beginning in spring 2000 that, in effect, call for the same thing as the Admonition. We expect synod assemblies again this year to pass a resolution in support of the Admonition. More than 2,200 theologians, pastors and lay people have added their signature to the Admonition. You can view their names on our website at www.wordalone.org. The number of signers will steadily grow.

The best way to continue our long tradition of ecumenical partnership is to do so on the basis of an agreement with integrity. The easiest way to see that CCM is flawed is to compare your official interpretation of CCM, the Mind of the House resolution (enclosed), with the ELCA’s official interpretation incorporated by reference in CCM paragraph 3, the Tucson Resolution (enclosed). Clearly we have very different interpretations of CCM, and fundamental beliefs for both churches are at stake.

We fervently hope that our churches can move beyond the CCM controversy, and we believe the Admonition points the way for doing so. If some of our bishops and pastors desire to be ordained into and within your historic episcopate, they could freely do so. If others, bound by our confessions, choose not to be ordained into and within an historic episcopate, they could freely do so. The first group would be fully interchangeable to serve on your clergy roster. All would bear common witness to the Gospel, with full pulpit and altar fellowship, as the European Lutherans and Anglicans are doing.

We ask you as the leaders of your church to express support for changes in the implementation of CCM as requested in the Admonition. Your General Convention this year would be a good opportunity to do so.

We pray for you, your church, and for the ecumenical partnerships involving our churches in over 1,000 communities and settings. May our Lord, Jesus the Christ, bless you with all good things from above.

Your servants in Christ,

  • Pastor Jaynan Clark Egland
  • President, WordAlone Network
  • Pastor Mark Chavez
  • Director, WordAlone Network