Lutherans Need To Know What Episcopalians Teach

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(A Response to J. Robert Wright [] in 7 parts)

by Dr. Meg H. Madson

What have Episcopalians and Roman Catholics agreed upon regarding the Historic Episcopate? What role does the Historic Episcopate play within The Episcopal Church? What difference does this make for Lutherans? How do Episcopalians actually do theology?

1. The Problem of Teaching Authority in the Anglican Communion.

How does a church describe and define its doctrinal stance? Of course it is usual to appeal to Scripture. Lutherans also subscribe to the Lutheran Confessions, and, as a consequence, have a mind set that assumes other churches, when making doctrinal statements, also subscribe to them as definitive and permanent. But the Episcopal Church, as the Righter Trial Court has stated, is “not a confessional church” (see II-A of the Official Report).

Lutherans are therefore misled in their own minds when Episcopalians make doctrinal statements because we assume such statements have a definitive and permanent status within the Anglican communion. For example, when Episcopalians cite the Book of Common Prayer (BCP), as Dr. Wright does, most Lutherans have no idea that the BCP is revised periodically and not merely in incidental ways. Nor do they realize that the BCP means “whatever the General Convention says it is at the moment the question is asked”[1] as John Sutter, Custodian of the Standard Book of Common Prayer has stated. Further, most Lutherans do not know that the Thirty-Nine Articles no longer have any confessional status, but are historical documents describing what Anglicans once held and some still choose to hold.

How then do Anglicans define themselves, that is, define themselves in a permanent and “definitive” way? Some will claim that such-and-such is what Anglicans have always done, but this proves fallible because only one exception disproves the claim, and as is well-known, exceptions exist. Others will point to the majority, even an overwhelming majority, but this is to define by majority and in one way or another to determine theology by survey, truly to make the lex orandi definitive. Majorities vary, ecumenical councils can err. Thus recourse is often had to prominent Anglican leaders and high-level commissions, and again Lutherans are misled in their own minds because they do not see that such prominent Anglican leaders and high-level commissions, no matter how sincere and firmly held their theological convictions, are not speaking confessionally, that is, definitively for the whole Anglican communion. For example, on the Lord’s Supper some Anglicans hold to a position akin to Zwingli and others a position akin to Transubstantiation, and because this is not defined confessionally, there is no way to sort this out, no matter how individuals or commissions state their case. Again, all of this is well-known, but most Lutherans, locked in their own mind set, do not understand how Anglicans in fact function.

But what of a recent development within the Anglican communion, the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral of 1886-1888? Does the Quadrilateral not define, and in at least a quasi-confessional sense? For many Anglicans this is undoubtedly the case. But how in fact does the Quadrilateral function for all Anglicans? As practicalrules: one must read the Scriptures, recite the creeds, celebrate the sacraments, and have the historic episcopate. Three examples:

  • Dr. Wright quotes the first of the Quadrilaterals: “The Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, as ‘containing all the things necessary to salvation,’ and as being the rule and ultimate standard of faith.” Yet when Frank Griswold was invested as Primate of the EC in January 1998, he received as a symbol of his ministry a copy of the Koran and responded, “May God renew in us today a spirit of companionship with all who seek to hear and do the word of God.”[2] We are confident that Presiding Bishop Griswold actually has the Christian Scriptures read in worship services; at the same time we see that “all things necessary to salvation” and “rule and ultimate standard of faith” have been given a particular content by Presiding Bishop Griswold.
  • In a like fashion the third Quadrilateral states: “The two Sacraments ordained by Christ Himself – Baptism and the Supper of the Lord – ministered with unfailing use of Christ’s words of Institution, and of the elements ordained by Him.” Yet at Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, the home parish of the Episcopal Bishop of California, William E. Spring, the following liturgy was chanted at the Eucharist during the month of January 1999: “We break this bread for those who journey the way of the Hindus, for those who follow the path of the Buddha, for our sisters and brothers of Islam, and for the Jewish people from whom we come.”[3] We are confident that under Bishop Spring’s guidance the Lord’s Supper is always celebrated using the precise rubrics of the BCP; at the same time it is evident that the content or meaning of the sacrament is, to put it carefully, different from that of the Tradition.
  • What happens to the second Quadrilateral concerning the ecumenical creeds when explicated by Bishop Spong does not need to be spelled out; again, we are confident that these creeds were used in worship services under his leadership.

We note that all three mentioned above are bishops, one even a primate, described often by Anglicans as those who are to “guard/safeguard” the Apostolic faith. The fourth Quadrilateral is the invariable rule of the historic episcopate, “locally adapted”; included, though not stated, is the requirement that the Ordinal include the invocation of the Holy Spirit and laying on of hands by three bishops already in the historic episcopate. But does the historic episcopate itself, even as it functions as the rule “guarding” the other three elements of the Quadrilateral, necessarily involve any specific content? Or can the historic episcopate be interpreted in many and even contradictory ways?

2. Catholics and Anglicans Agree on the Sacramental Nature of Ordination.

Here the Righter Trial Court in 1996, knowing the situation described in #1 above, had at hand a further resource. In 1979 the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission wrote:

“Both traditions affirm the pre-eminence of baptism and the eucharist as sacraments ‘necessary to salvation.’ This does not diminish their understanding of the sacramental nature of ordination, as to which there is no significant disagreement between them.”[4]

Lambeth 1988 and the EC General Convention in 1988 affirmed ARCIC I as “consonant in substance with the faith of Anglicans.” We note that ARCIC I does not state that ordination is a “sacramental,” such as the sign of the cross, prayer, or a blessing, but that Roman Catholics and Anglicans agree on the “sacramental nature” of ordination. We are helped, in spite of difficulties in defining a sacrament generally within the non-Roman Catholic tradition, by the fact that Roman Catholic teaching here is well defined. This means, for example, that the signum (sign) would never be present without the res (essence), that the sacramental structures of the Church are of the very nature of the Church, and that sacramental structures are instruments the Church uses to bring salvation. To answer the question posed at the end of #1 above, therefore: the content of the historic episcopate is its sacramental nature, both for Roman Catholics and Anglicans.

It cannot be said that only the Anglo-Catholic wing of the Anglican Communion holds the view stated above of the sacramental nature of ordained ministry. In October 1999 the Archbishop of Canterbury George L. Carey, who presides at Lambeth Conferences, stated: “…[T]he firm ontological basis of the ordained ministry … has been central to our understanding of the Church.”[5] The Archbishop spoke on behalf of the whole Communion; he himself is well-known as an evangelical Anglican, not part of the Anglo-Catholic wing.

Basic to the incarnation is that one cannot separate salvation and church. Like law and gospel one is to discern the difference but not separate them. What one says about salvation necessarily implies a view of the church. For example, Lutherans hold that the cross establishes that all our efforts and structures are broken, and none, including canon, creed, and church, can provide security. The Word alone safeguards itself. Nor do Anglicans properly separate salvation and church. That sacraments are “necessary for salvation” and that ordination by bishops in an historic episcopate is required so that bishops and priests are able to confect a valid Eucharist is consonant with not separating salvation and church. Traditional Anglican distinctions between esse, bene esse, and plene esse do not eliminate the fact that, whatever the view, one has to do it, that is, have the historic episcopate because for them salvation necessarily includes sacraments validated their way.

3. How the Righter Trial Functioned.

The eight bishops in the Righter Trial Court were asked the question: Is a suffragan bishop who ordained a publicly active homosexual guilty of doctrinal error, i.e., heresy? In light of the situation described above in ##1-2, the eight bishops had to first develop a framework, a methodology. What is heresy, and what is not heresy? Who determines? How is this determined? On the one hand, they had to determine what authority is; they determined that the historic episcopate is “necessary for salvation,” “binding on all the baptized,” “unchangeable,” and “supplying a basis for reckoning a church to be a true Church”(II-B). Having established “Core Doctrine” and the basis for their own authority to rule on such questions, they ruled that Bishop Righter is not guilty of error because “core doctrine contains no moral teachings.”[6] As is well-known, the vote was seven to one, with the seven belonging to what is generally thought of as the liberal wing in the EC and the one from what is thought of as the conservative wing in the EC.

Dr. Wright would have us believe that the eight bishops (who, if not present at Lambeth 1988 and the EC General Convention of 1988, surely are alert to decisions made at those two assemblies) would “in passing,” as “an adiaphoron,” an “obiter dictum,” and “unintentionally” make the important statements they did and thus “exceeded their mandate.” But would these bishops, who surely know the intrinsic importance of statements such as “necessary for salvation,” “binding on all the baptized,” “unchangeable,” and “supplying a basis for reckoning a church to be a true Church,” purposely venture far afield, in a way that could be misleading and to no purpose? Would not decisions at the level of the highest court in the EC proceed with great care and seriousness?[7]

4. The Problem of CCM ¶13.

But what of CCM ¶13? Let us set aside the question of whether Anglicans are saying one thing to Roman Catholics and another to Lutherans. (Professor Wright indicates that he himself added the words denying that the historic episcopate is “necessary for salvation or for recognition of another church as a church.”) The fact remains that belief and practice go together; as you do, so you will believe. The invariable requirement of “doing” the historic episcopate is a minimal indication of its sacramentality, so that during the time of the “temporary suspension” (¶16) of the ordinals it is perfectly acceptable for Lutherans to have all sorts of views about the historic episcopate. As the churches “grow together” (¶14) the ELCA will progressively take on the full sacramental historic episcopate. Finally both churches will have “a common and fully interchangeable ministry of bishops”(¶14), full communion will be “fully realized” (¶14), and Lutherans will believe what Episcopalians believe about the sacramental historic episcopate.

Along with the interpretation above, the General Convention of the EC may want to reconsider its 1988 acceptance of ARCIC I as consonant with its beliefs and also consider correcting misleading statements found in the report of the Righter Trial Court. Until such changes are made at the level of the General Convention, the affirmation of ARCIC I and the affirmations of the Righter Trial Court continue to have a high level of authority.

5. No Agreement on Essentials – CCM ¶¶ 2, 4, 22.

Lutherans should be alert to the fact that, because of their own confessional mind set, they misconstrue what is stated in CCM ¶¶2, 4, and 22 concerning agreement between Lutherans and Episcopalians in the “essentials” of the Christian faith; this does not include agreement in doctrinal formulations (¶22) and particular confessional documents. Lutherans wrongly assume that we can and do know what these “essentials” are and that they are available in some fashion. No determination of these “essentials” is available. For example, consider what Dr. Wright himself has written concerning justification by faith alone:

Finally, I am sure that Anglicans would have serious reservations about this article’s [AC 20] claim that justification by faith is “the chief article in the Christian life” (German text) or “the chief teaching in the church” (Latin text), reinforced by the claim in CA 28:52 (BC 89) that justification is “the chief article of the Gospel.” Anglicans would be quite reluctant to claim that any one particular article of the Christian faith stands out above all the others.[8]

How can there be said to be any agreement on this “essential”?

6. The Anglican Dilemma is not Solved by Criticizing Lutherans.

Although the best defense is said to be a good offense, the difficulties posed for Dr. Wright by ARCIC I and the Righter Trial Court are not solved by his responding (as he has at times in fact done) that Lutherans also have difficulties in defining themselves. We are of course aware of the fact that we are involved in a battle within Lutheranism for the truth of the gospel. We recognize that this conceptuality, “the truth of the gospel,” may be alien to the Episcopalian mind set, but we would hope, as the highly ranked historian he is, that he would note how our opponents go against the plain sense of the text of the Lutheran Confessions, for example, and how Lutherans have not in the past thought they could alter their Confessions, with the exception of Samuel Simon Schmucker in 1855 and the constitutional amendments enacted by the ELCA on August 19, 1999.

7. Why Should Lutherans Bother With What Episcopalians Say to Roman Catholics?

Some say: How dare Lutherans talk about Episcopal beliefs and doctrines outside of CCM! It all comes down to CCM ¶13: Episcopalians allege that “sharing in the historic catholic episcopate…is not necessary for salvation or for recognition of another church as a church….” But this is deceptive because they have agreed with Roman Catholics on the “sacramental nature” of ordained ministry, and we all know what this means for Roman Catholics on salvation. The difference between CCM ¶13 and what Episcopalians have agreed upon with Roman Catholics (and claimed in the Righter Trial) raises troubling questions about the integrity of CCM as a whole. Lutherans need to know what Episcopalians teach about the sacramental nature of their Historic Episcopate.


Meg Madson does Reformation theology from Plymouth, Minnesota.


[1]. Sydnor, William, The Prayer Book Through the Ages (Harrisburg: Morehouse, 1997)129.

[2]. The Living Church, 5/99.

[3]. The Living Church, 5/99.

[4]. The Final Report of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (Cincinnati: Forward Movement, 1982) Elucidation 3 (Salisbury) 42.

[5]. Episcopal News Service, 9/26/99.

[6]. Reno, R. R., “An Analysis of the Righter Decision,” Pro Ecclesia 5/3 (Summer 1996) 272.

[7]. Lutherans should be alert to the fact that Anglicans use the term adiaphoron differently than do Lutherans.

[8].Wright, J. Robert, “Anglican Recognition of the Augsburg Confession: An Actual Possibility?” Concordat of Agreement: Supporting Essays (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1995)137.