28 July 2006

On Lutherans Becoming X

In the latest issue (vol 9 no 3) of De Trinitate, the Newsletter of the Society of the Holy Trinity, Rev Dr Frank C Senn, the STS Senior, comments on the departure of Lutheran clergy to either the Roman Catholic Church or the Orthodox Church. His focus is on those in the Society who have left including Phillip Max Johnson, the previous STS Senior (and Paul V Abbee, a former STS Dean and a classmate of mine at CTS). However, he also comments briefly on the departures of non-STS members Jaroslav Pelikan (of blessed memory), Richard John Neuhaus and Leonard Klein.

Senn notes that Neuhaus and Klein (among others)

developed a view of Lutheranism as a reform movement in the Catholic Church of the West. That was exciting, but I think finally misleading.

I think Senn is absolutely correct. If Lutheranism is nothing more than a "confessing movement within the Church Catholic" (a phrase, if memory serves, that A C Piepkorn employed), then it is either the worst form of schism (a selectively communing "church within a church") or it is an admission that, apart from self-invented concordants between local communities, there really is no trans-parochial entity called "church."

Senn continues by stating that one tempting reaction to these departures is to "[look] for deficiencies in Rome or other communions to justify why we are not making this journey" (empahsis added). Let me add that another temptation is to wring our hands wondering about by-gone years (a temptation I've been accused of indulging). Several months ago, Carl E Braaten offered a healthier avenue by asking, in an open letter, not "What's wrong with them" but "What's wrong with us." This, however, can lead to a third and fourth temptation. The third is to say, "Things are getting better" (which, on a lighter note, brings this to mind). And the fourth is to suggest the formation of a new church or another version of a "church-within-a-church."

Predictably, Senior Senn urges his charges not to despair but to remain true to the confession to which they have pledged themselves. He reminds them that "It's not always pleasant to remain in place and contend for the truth of the gospel or to champion the great tradition in our congregations and denominations." These are words to which any faithful churchman, regardless of his communion, would say a hearty "Amen."

Bolstering his argument with the stern warning of a good father, Dr Senn makes this blunt statement:

Short cuts to Rome [or elsewhere, I would add] may be tempting and personally satisfying, but it is pastorally irresponsible to abandon congregations and colleagues, and it is ecumenically irresponsible to give up the painstaking work of moving whole communities toward fellowship with each other.

Again, these are words that, in most circumstances, are true. However, the latter "irresponsibility" assumes that the "work of moving whole communities" is best accomplished within some sort of bureaucratic, centralized structure and not one local parish at a time. This is a point that could be disputed. The former "irresponsibility" assumes that the abandoner is doing so for less than pure motives.

There are many "less than pure motives" that are possible; namely, the desire to run from the cross, pride, greed, etc. The most insidious of these "less than pure motives" is found in the statement, "By becoming x, I became a better Lutheran." Frankly, I once favored that logic, but now I grow increasily impatient with it. For it suggests that joining another communion is little more than a "hop," and that one's not really giving up anything but simply "completing" himself. It also belies an untenable notion of truth; namely, that there is no sure body of truth located in one place (i.e., a true visible church), but that the Lutherans have a bit that helps complete the defiencies of x. Finally, in ecclesial terms, this argument partakes of the false primacy of the invisible church by suggesting that, in the end, communions matter--but only as "communities" and not as assemblies of rightly prayed dogma.

By using the phrase "less than pure motives" I have, of course, raised the question, "What would be pure motives for abandoning one's congregation?" I can think of only one: the Pastor (or layman) has come to the conclusion that he no longer is of the same faith as those with whom he is in communion. In other words, the person who leaves his communion does so with pure motives because he can articulate at least the material (if not also the formal) deficiencies in the confession to which he has pledged himself. I would further add that it is not enough to articulate those deficiencies in terms of doctrinal formulae or propostions which are wrongly stated; more than that, he must articulate the material liturgical deficiencies in his present communion. (Notice, not how doctrinal formulae are poorly prayed, but how the liturgy has helped inform the deficient doctrinal formulae.)

To be sure, it is not always charitable or helpful to articulate those deficiencies publicly; and, I would think, it is certainly pastorally irresponsible to do so to the congregation he may be leaving. But this does not absolve the person from being able to do so--perhaps, if only, to his incoming superior.

In this regard, the title and nuanced argument that Fr Richard John Neuhaus made at Concordia Theological Seminary some years ago (published later in First Things) is very instructive. Neuhaus does not write about "How I Became the Lutheran I Always Should Have Been," but "How I Beame the Catholic I Was." Simply put, his argument is that the Roman Church made up for the deficiencies he found in Lutheranism.

On the whole, then, I resonate with Dr Senn's pastoral letter to the members of STS. However, I offer this caveat:

It is pastorally irresponsible for a man to remain in his parish and in communion with his colleagues when he is capable of articulating serious deficiencies in their common confession; that is, when he can no longer pray the same dogma as they pray.

No comments: