The ELCA’s Required Episcopate

Boiling the Frog

An update on the ELCA’s adoption

of the Episcopal episcopate.

1. Required. The first attached sheet shows the constitutional change (¶10.81.01) required by CCM (1999) for the ELCA to achieve fellowship with The Episcopal Church: Every new ELCA bishop must be consecrated by three bishops in the historic episcopate, including one bishop from The Episcopal Church.[1]

2. Sacramental. The last attached sheet shows that Anglicans and Catholics agree that ordination into their historic episcopates conveys special grace, channeled through bishops, grace to “safeguard the gospel,” (CCM ¶5) and to make Christ present in communion. This special grace is not available to laity.

3. You don’t have to believe it; you just have to do it. ELCA bishops commonly say that they don’t believe the new required “installation” ceremony conveys special grace. Bishop Craig Johnson (Minneapolis Area Synod) said: “I simply see the Historic Episcopate as a symbol ….There is absolutely no ontological change that takes place.”

The problem is that personal opinion is not relevant in this matter. It is like being married or drafted into the army. One is incorporated into an institution with necessary consequences, regardless of one’s personal opinion.  ELCA bishops have to kneel and receive Episcopal hands on their heads. They don’t have to believe it; they just have to do it.

4.         “Installation” is a misnomer; the rite is really an “ordination.” In Lutheran parlance an installation is a rite repeated every time a pastor moves to a new congregation or post.  But the ELCA’s rite for bishops to enter “the office of bishop,” is not to be repeated.[2] It has the one-time character of an Episcopal ordination into “the office of bishop.”

For Lutherans an ordination is a one-time ceremony, but it is not sacramental. No special grace is given; no ontological change happens. It is a non-sacramental rite acknowledging an individual’s readiness for the public ministry of Word and sacrament.  An ordination is the churchly equivalent of a lawyer, doctor, or plumber receiving a license to practice his/her craft. Entering a profession or a guild (craft) happens once.

In contrast, Episcopalians regard the ceremony by which a bishop enters the “office of bishop” as sacramental. It is a one-time sacrament. It conveys special grace “to safeguard” the gospel, the unity of the church, and to ordain lesser clergy.

ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson has said that when a bishop’s term in office is finished, he/she will no longer be a “bishop” but return to the rank of pastor. Episcopal officials have not responded publicly to Hanson’s comment. They know enough to keep silent. They are confident that belief will follow ceremony. Over time Lutheran bishops will be regarded as having the same power as Episcopal bishops.  Thus even when ELCA bishops retire or leave office, they will be regarded as having special authority to ordain.

5.         The so-called “exceptions clause” bylaw will be dropped when it is politically expedient to do so. The ELCA adopted a temporary bylaw allowing seminary graduates to be ordained by a pastor if their bishop grants permission. Since 1999 less than 1% of ELCA seminary graduates (about 40) have successfully appealed to be ordained by a pastor.  This temporary bylaw never did address the central requirement of CCM – that all bishops must be ordained in the historic episcopate.  It was essentially a ploy to divide those opposed to CCM, and it was a successful ploy.

6.         As you “buy into” the Episcopal episcopate, you “sell out” the next generation. Time is on the side of the ELCA. The next generation will do it and believe it.  It is not realistic to wave a Lutheran flag within an Episcopal system. Every denomination is an organic whole. For Lutherans the freedom of the gospel necessarily includes the freedom from particular required structures. For Episcopalians, like Catholics and the Orthodox, the hierarchical sacramental priesthood is required because it channels the grace necessary to safeguard the church and make Jesus truly present in the Eucharist.

The ELCA is shifting from being a Word-centered church to being a bishop-centered church in which political and sacramental power are grounded in the bishops. Congregations often think of themselves as islands, but in fact they are dependent upon and beholden to their bishop, synod, and churchwide organization.

a.         When a congregation calls a new pastor, the Letter of Call must be signed by the bishop.

b.         Congregations conform and promote ELCA agendas by using ELCA hymnals, confirmation materials, and participating in ELCA events.

c.         Congregations must support their synod and churchwide headquarters with benevolence dollars.

d.         Pastors must curry favor with their bishops in order to advance their careers. If a congregation’s giving to the synod is not up to par, its pastor will be covertly punished or neglected by the synod.

Moreover, the ELCA Constitution for Synods has been gradually altered to give bishops and synods more power over congregations.  Three examples:

1.         Constitution for Synods S14.13b: “When allegations of … ineffective conduct of the pastoral office have come to the attention of the bishop…the bishop in his or her sole discretion may … investigate such conditions personally in company with a committee of two ordained and one layperson.” (Emphasis added)

Note two issues:  1. Who picks the committee of two ordained and one lay?  The bishop.  2. Who decides what is “ineffective conduct”?  What is “ineffective conduct”?  Cutting benevolence to the synod?

2.         S14.13d: “In the case of alleged local difficulties that imperil the effective functioning of the congregation…the bishop with the committee described in S14.13.b shall decide on the course of action to be recommended to the pastor and the congregation….If either party fails to assent, the congregation may dismiss the pastor….(b) by a simple majority vote of the voting members present and voting where the bishop and the committee recommended termination of the call(Emphasis added).

Note two issues:  1. The Constitution was here changed from requiring a 2/3 vote to only “a simple majority.”  2. The “committee” is the one appointed by the bishop.

3.         S13.23 and S13.24: “…if the Synod Council, in its sole and exclusive discretion,…title to the property shall revert to the synod…..(emphasis added)

“….if in the opinion of the Synod Council that the membership of a congregation has become so scattered or so diminished…the Council…may take charge and control of the property of the congregation.”

Note:  Even if these provisions are not actually used, the power has been centralized in the synod council, which in effect means the bishop and his staff.

[1] No exceptions can be allowed. By this legalistic requirement, the ELCA surrendered the freedom of the gospel because gospel freedom includes freedom for the church to alter its structures. For Lutherans an adiaphoron is only an adiaphoron when it is an adiaphoron for both sides. Gospel-plus = gospel altered.

[2] See page 5 of the attached ceremony and notes: “The laying on of hands and its accompanying prayer is not repeated for a person who is currently serving as a bishop.”