22 August 2009

A history lesson on the ELCA

I grew up in the literal shadow of an Augustana Synod Lutheran Church. When the sun was almost set, the shadow of the steeple cross fell upon my home. A large portion of my friends were Swedish Lutherans and so, when it was time for their catechism classes to begin, I went, too, and learned to love the Lutheran heritage as practiced by the Augustana Synod Lutherans. I still am listed on the rolls of the local congregation because of my 52-year association with the congregation.

With that background, I look at the recent events in the ELCA from an inside-yet-outside vantage point.

While the "liberals" are celebrating the step towards equal justice taken yesterday by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), some, including me, are preparing for the fall out.

The problem will be that the ELCA was born 1986-88 from a merger of three different Lutheran synods with a history going back to the early 1800s. [Click on the chart for a visual history of the ELCA]*
  • The Lutheran Church in America
  • The Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches
  • The American Lutheran Church

Each of these synods represented (and still represents) various theological positions and practice based largely on ethnicity.

  1. The American Lutheran Church was primarily Norwegian and Danish. There were some small German Lutheran groups involved in this merger but they weren't the "Saxon Lutherans." They were heavily pietistic in their theology with Calvinist leanings (particularly the Danes). By church government they were congregationalist in most matters. These are the "low church" Lutherans and their services were more in like a Presbyterian service ritually - particularly the Danish Lutherans.
  2. The Lutheran Church in America was a merger of three large German speaking synods, the Swedish Augustana Synod, and the Finish Synod. The LCA was the most liberal of the three groups that formed the ELCA. Some of the Swedish Lutheran Church government was more like TEC and included bishops - with full Apostolic succession. But not all of the Swedes retained bishops. (In the case of the Swedish church I grew up knowing, until the 1970s, all pastors were required to have been ordained by a Church of Sweden bishop assuring Apostolic succession.) The LCA was known as the "high church" of the Lutheran world and they even used the "mass-word" and some Augustana congregations even used incense. There was a pietistic element in the Swedish church which gave us hymns such as “How great thou art” and “Children of the Heavenly Father.” In my opinion, they had the best music (the second setting from the Service Book and Hymnal is the most glorious setting of the luturgy I've ever heard.)
  3. The Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches. The AELC was formed by moderate members of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (known as “those Saxons” by most other Lutheran groups in the United States) who left in the 1970s after a purge in LCMS seminaries of any professors who were perceived as having liberal leanings. The "schism" was known as the "Whale schism" because it began over whether it was a whale or big fish that swallowed Jonah. In reality, the schism was over the literalness and infallibility of scripture. That split is still a sore spot for the group. The AELC was the most conservative of the three groups.

The merger was not without problems and not all the AELC and ALC joined the ELCA. There are still congregations of both of these synods sprinkled throughout North America.

So what does all of this corrected history lesson have to do with the vote yesterday. To understand what is possibly coming for the ELCA, one must know the players and the history.

  • Three main ethnic groups
  • Three different theological positions worship styles and hymnody
  • Three parent groups themselves formed by splits and mergers

My prediction is that there will be a withdrawal of some sort by the former AELC and some of the ALC. They may migrate back to their parent groups or band together as a church within the ELCA.

Two factors that may prevent a full parting are that

  • ELCA leaders do not wish to have a full blown schism as they have seen in the Anglican Communion and
  • ELCA has been one church for only about twenty-five years or so. There hasn't been decades of fermentation by disgruntled members

Remarkably, the three groups have managed to form one of the strongest churches in the protestant world. They don't want that witness tarnished.

My thanks to Matt and Robert for pointing out a few errors in the formation groups of the ELCA.

* You'll find the explanation of the various initials used in the chart here. When I was young the first question a Lutheran asked when meeting another Lutheran was "What alphabet?" After you've examined at the chart, you'll get the joke and be glad you're Episcopalian!

UELC = United Evangelical Lutheran Church
LFC = Lutheran Free Church

By the way, the LCMS leadership does not consider the other Lutheran groups as Christians. In fact, at the service of healing after 11 September, the president of the LCMS was nearly impeached because he took part in the ecumenical service (also here). Officially, at least, LCMS does not pray or worship with non LCMS people. There are rare exceptions, but they are rare.