In the current issue of The Christian Century there are three items about Lutherans. One is about the economic difficulties incurred by congregations of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) who have left that denomination to protest its decision in August 2009 to allow non-celibate gay clergy and to bless same-sex unions. Thus far there are relatively few of those (362 out of over 10,000 congregations), but their sentiments are shared by a much larger group. Aunt Elka (as some of its more devoted members call the ELCA) has been rather generous toward such dissidents. They are allowed to keep their buildings, as long as they are affiliated with some other Lutheran body, notably the newly formed conservative North American Lutheran Church, thus avoiding the nasty legal conflicts experienced by Episcopalians under similar circumstances. (Unlike the schismatic Anglican body, the NALC has not, or not yet, imported an African bishop to preside over it—most conservative Lutherans are not worried about an episcopate with apostolic succession. At least one worry less!) Nevertheless ongoing financial support to local congregations by the central church organization ceases, thus causing great hardship, especially in so-called mission churches—those whose members are too few or too poor to pay their pastors’ salaries and other local expenses out of their own pockets.
Another, very brief item recounted that, as a result of shrinking contributions, the ELCA will cut 18% of the staff at its national headquarters (which, by the way, is located at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport—as far as I know, the only American airport that can boast being a religious center). The fiscal woes have been going on for quite some time. Since 1988, when the ELCA was formed, contributions have declined by 50%.
The third item reports at greater length about another problem faced by Lutherans, along with other Protestants who allow gay clergy. The phrase widely used to describe this newly accepted group is individuals who live in “committed relationships”—the ELCA has a variant phrase, same-sex couples in “publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous” relationships (to make sure, I suppose, that parsonages are not turned into promiscuous bath houses). The problem is how to determine whether a relationship is indeed “committed”—in other words, who is to do the “public accounting.” The double standard here is rather offensive: Heterosexual clergy, unless caught in blatant adulterous behavior, have never had their marital “commitment” scrutinized by church officials.
Mary Albing, a lesbian ELCA pastor in Minnesota, who was first removed and then reinstated by her bishop, commented on the situation in a way I found quite moving. After saying that she grew up in “a little church literally surrounded by cornfields,” she went on: “I just feel sad about people leaving the church. These are just like the people I grew up with. This is my tribe, and even the people who don’t like me and don’t understand me—they’re my tribe”.
I want to make three comments. One: The three news items are connected. Two: There are actually two Lutheran tribes—the ELCA and the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (LCMS), respectively the largest and second-largest Lutheran body in America. And three: The story behind the three items is that the ELCA (unlike the LCMS) has in effect become a part of mainline Protestantism, sharing its ideological and fiscal troubles.
The ELCA has about four-and-a-half million members. It is a national denomination, but its roots are in the East, where in 1748 Heinrich Melchior Muehlenberg (later known as Henry Muhlenberg), a highly educated German missionary, founded the Ministerium of Pennsylvania, the first Lutheran synod in America. The ELCA was the result of the 1988 merger of three earlier Lutheran bodies with varying ethnic constituencies. Indeed, the ELCA can be seen as the final step in the de-ethnization of American Lutheranism, which for the larger part of its history was organized in ethnically defined church bodies – German, Swedish, Norwegian, and so on. The first step was actually taken during the War of Independence. Henry Muhlenberg was as fertile biologically as he was ecclesiastically. He had ten children and his family formed a kind of Lutheran dynasty. His son Peter was also a pastor in the Pennsylvania synod founded by his father. According to local legend (I cannot vouch for its veracity) Peter was in the pulpit, preaching, when he dramatically took off his black robe to reveal himself in the uniform of a general in the Continental Army. (If true, I wonder if he and his congregation were aware that German mercenaries were fighting on the British side—they came from Hessen, and thus could be presumed to be Lutherans.) All the same, the language of the Ministerium, and of other synods founded later, remained German for a long time. An important later step came during the First World War, when all things German were very unpopular and most of American Lutheranism switched to English. The Scandinavian languages did not have the problem of being associated with the Kaiser. So the synods identified with these ethnic groups took longer to fully Americanize.
The ELCA is a “broad church,” containing different theological and political tendencies. In both areas it is more liberal in the East, more conservative in the Lutheran heartland of the Upper Midwest (Garrison Keeler territory—the only part of the country where the mention of Lutherans evokes mirth—an unlikely event in, say, Boston). But what emanates from denominational headquarters (should one call it the ELCA “airport culture?”) is predictably liberal, both theologically and politically. Women have been ordained since the 1970s. In 1991 a pro-choice position on abortion was embraced, though with some strong limitations. Recent editions of the worship book have inserted “gender-neutral” language. Still, the 2009 vote in the national church assembly on gay clergy and same-sex unions was narrow: 539 to 451. As in other Protestant denominations, there is a considerable difference between the emanations from headquarters and what goes on in local congregations, and to a lesser degree between clergy and lay people. Still, compared to the LCMS (given the latter’s separatism, one may speak here of cousin- rather than sister-churches), the ELCA is a hotbed of theological and political radicalism.
The LCMS was founded in 1847, a century after the establishment of Lutheranism in Pennsylvania, by dissenters from the so-called Prussian Union, the united church of Lutherans and Calvinists enforced by the Prussian government. The dissenters insisted on strict adherence to the Augsburg Confession and other foundational statements of Lutheran orthodoxy, as against the politically motivated merger with Calvinists. (The Hohenzollerns, who ruled Prussia, were Calvinists of Swiss origin, ruling over a predominantly Lutheran population. They were not known for their religious interests, in accordance with the famous saying of Frederick the Great, “let everyone be redeemed according to his own fashion.” But they strongly believed that religious unity was necessary for political stability.) Rigorous adherence to the letter (if not the spirit) of the Lutheran confessions has continued to be the defining characteristic of the Missouri Synod. It has now about two-and-a-half million members. Like the ELCA, it can be found all over the country, but it is strongest in the Midwest. Appropriately, its headquarters and its main theological school, Concordia Seminary, are in St. Louis. There are no bishops. Until the 1970s there was some theological diversity, but this was squelched by an increasingly conservative leadership, which instituted a purge of the faculty at Concordia. Apart from the iconic status of the Lutheran confessions, the LCMS is very close to the Evangelical community in America, as the ELCA is to mainline Protestants. Missouri has an essentially Evangelical understanding of Scripture and conservative positions on moral issues. It does not ordain women. As far as I know, the below-the-navel concerns that have agitated the ELCA, along with Episcopalians and other Protestants, are not even on the radar in the environs of St.Louis—nothing, so to speak, is allowed to hang out. Since ecclesiastical discipline is stricter than in the ELCA, I would imagine that in the LCMS there is less difference between headquarters and local congregations, and between clergy and laity.
For those not familiar with the esoterica of Lutheranism I should provide a terminological clarification: The term “Evangelical” in the name of all American Lutheran church bodies derives from continental European usage—German “evangelisch” and its synonyms in Scandinavian languages. It simply means Protestant (say, as different from Roman Catholics). It does not mean “Evangelical” as in common American (and British) usage. Thus the LCMS has always been evangelisch, but it is I who assert that it rather “Evangelical”. I agree that this is a little confusing. But that is why studying the curiosities of religion can be such fun!
Back to our two tribes: The main story here, I think, is that the ELCA is becoming more and more like the Protestant mainline, while the LCMS is trying, with considerable success (as far as I can tell), to maintain a tribal subculture. A few years ago I was asked to give a lecture on a sociological view of American Lutheranism, first at a meeting of ELCA bishops at O’Hare, then a few weeks later at Concordia (someone I knew there invited me to speak and agreed to the same topic—he didn’t know what I was going to say). An absence of chutzpa not being one of my vices, I described the ELCA as Methodists who drink beer, and Missouri as Southern Baptists with better music. I did not endear myself to either audience.
In the service of full disclosure I should mention that I am Lutheran myself, though very far from any doctrinal orthodoxy. Thus my sociological perspective on the Lutheran phenomenon in America pains me. I think that the Lutheran Reformation originally conveyed a powerful sense of liberation—first from the legalism of Rome, a little later from the legalism of the Calvinists. This freedom from any form of legalism or fundamentalism, be it theological or political, is in principle achievable today as it was in the 16th century. I think that this freedom can be sensed more in Lutheran hymnody than in the dogmatic texts so beloved by Missouri. I further think that there are two varieties of fundamentalism (in classical Lutheran language, varieties of “works righteousness”) involved in the current Lutheran situation in this country. There is a theological fundamentalism very visible in the LCMS. A political fundamentalism (aka “political correctness”) is very evident in the “airport culture” of the ELCA—it shares it with the mainline Protestantism into which it is morphing. All the same, I believe that this spirit of freedom still survives, even if often muted, in many local congregations affiliated with either body—some of them, no doubt, out in the cornfields evoked by Pastor Albing.