30 September 2007

A Personal Anniversary

One year ago yesterday and today, I submitted my resignation as Pastor of Zion Evangelical-Lutheran Church of Detroit. I stated, in simple terms, that I was resigning without any conditions or requests because Zion expects a Lutheran Pastor and I could no longer believe, teach or confess various parts of the 1580 Book of Concord.

It was necessary for me to submit my resignation on two days so that the pertinent officers could be present. On both days, the English District President was present. While I did not ask for nor expect it, the officers granted me the courtesy of publicly announcing my resignation at a congregational meeting. The officers and District President determined that 29 October 2006 would be that date.

The officers were disappointed but not shocked. Three years previous I had publicly announced to the congregation that I was entering a period of discernment concerning my relationship with the LCMS and the Lutheran Church generally. Later I invited the congregation, as a whole, to enter into its own period of discernment. They did. For three years, the officers and I met to discuss the issues and various options. During the three year period, and even before my announcement of "discernment" in May 2003, I met privately with a few of the officers whose particular counsel, wisdom and advice I valued. As speculation grew, confidences were not betrayed.

There were several catalysts which prompted my decision to enter into a period of discernment. Among these were the decision (never implemented, thank God) by the LCMS Commission on Worship to alter the wording of the Nicene Creed; my own struggles with various aspects of Lutheran teaching; my increasing concern about being in communion with those who deliberately, willfully and persistently opposed the Catholic Faith; and my increasing frustration with the disjunction between official confession vs. public teaching. At the heart of the matter, however, was the understanding of liturgy and its centrality to Christian faith and life. The modification of the liturgical tradition that had been received by Lutherans ended up being the "straw that broke the camels back." In this regard, serving on the Lutheran Hymnal Project became an unforeseen catalyst.

While certain options were never in play, I did not know that the discernment I entered in May 2003 would lead to my resignation in September 2006, or my reception into the Orthodox Church.

What I said in my public announcement still applies one year later: I shall always genuinely appreciate and be eternally grateful for the love and the generosity that the members of Zion showered upon me and my family during my tenure as their Pastor. And I am grateful for every blessing of the Holy Spirit that I received in the Lutheran Church—most especially for the gift of Holy Baptism, for a rigorous catechesis in many basic doctrines, for the Holy Eucharist that has nourished my faith, and for the grace to serve three parishes.


Dixie said...

Dear Father,

You write such sincerely and with great charity about your Lutheran days. I appreciate your example and hope that someday I, too, will be able to speak with like kindness about my Lutheran experience. Unfortunately, I am not there yet. Lord have mercy on me.

Paul Gregory Alms said...

Here is sincere question, Father Fenton, as to the Eucharist.

Do you believe that you received the body and blood of Christ in the Lutheran Church? I have heard differing opinions among the Orthodox as to whether I as a Lutheran truly do receive Christ's body and blood.

I wonder what you have been taught and/or believe.

Thanks for your time. I do enjoy your blog, btw.

Fr John W Fenton said...

Pr Alms,

Thanks for your kind and sincere inquiry.

When I publicly announced my resignation, I read these words:

I also urge you not to believe those who would question the Gospel and sacraments you have received from me. I have given what I have received. And despite my many failings and the failings of the Synod, the Gospel you have received here in this place is the wondrous, loving, merciful work of the Holy Spirit.

I have not retracted these words. And in case they are not clear, let me state bluntly that I hold that the Eucharist that I distributed as a Lutheran was the true and actual Body and Blood of Christ administered, by the wondrous mercy of the Holy Spirit, outside the canonical boundaries of the church. The same is true of the Baptisms that I performed. Hence these were efficacious yet irregular and therefore not the norm. Whether this is the case for every Lutheran celebration, I cannot say.

Dixie said...

Dear Father,

I am quite surprised to read this:

And in case they are not clear, let me state bluntly that I hold that the Eucharist that I distributed as a Lutheran was the true and actual Body and Blood of Christ administered, by the wondrous mercy of the Holy Spirit...

How is it that you know this? You had not even been given the grace of Ordination as a Lutheran pastor. The Lutherans have no such Sacrament. I realize the Holy Spirit blows where He wills but to say this without qualification apart from Ordination, apart from authorization by the Bishop, etc., well, I guess I don't understand.

Paul Gregory Alms said...

Thank you for your clear answer.

123 said...

Pr. Alms,

I wonder whether it would be worthwhile to look at the issue a differing way. Are there any examples you could think of where you (or the Lutheran Confessions, of the various Synods) would not recognize a valid Sacrament? What is the boundary line between valid and invalid, grace filled and graceless Sacrament? For instance, what are your thoughts of an uncalled Lutheran layman (of any synod) consecrating and distributing Communion? What are your thoughts regarding the Sacraments of non-Trinitarian Christians? What are your thoughts regarding sacraments performed verbatim by non-Christians (such as shamans that seek the 'greater magic' of the Christians)? At what point are the honest intentions of a person in attempting to do God's will not enough? For any group that might not meet your standard, would it be better to lower the bar and acknowledge their sacraments were 'real' so as not to scandalize them or make them fear for their (and their deceased loved ones') salvations, or to offer them the fullness of the truth and a chance for repentance.

Not trying to be provocative, just trying to look at it from a different POV that might be helpful in understanding.

Paul Gregory Alms said...

Chris, I have no problem with the Orthodox setting their own boundaries and sticking to them. If according to their self understanding and understanding of Scripture and tradition the conclusion is I, as a Lutheran, do not have the Eucharist, that is totally up to them.

I was just trying to figure out how the Orthodox come to that decision whatever it is. I have heard it argued both ways.

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

Dear Fr. Fenton,

Many years!

I'm so glad you have a bit more freedom by now to clear up some of the points that had slanderously been alleged against you.

Let no one judge Another's servant.


123 said...

I was just trying to figure out how the Orthodox come to that decision whatever it is.

What seems an odd way to get at an answer that Lutherans don't like has much more in common with the Lutheran position when looked at through this 'reverse' angle. The lines may be drawn at different points along the continuum, but we are on the same general contiuum - "what constitutes the Lord's Baptism rather than some other rite of our own making, which cannot promise the gifts the sacrament gives?" (another difference that would be important to understand).

Schütz said...

Dear Father Fenton,

I popped in to ask you a question (namely "What kind of rite is your 'Western Rite'? - you can email me an answer on cumecclesia@yahoo.com.au) but then saw this blog and thought "Wow, I've got to ask him: When did he first realise that the Eucharist he was celebrating as a Lutheran pastor was invalid and did that speed up his move to the Orthodox Church?" I was very surprised (or maybe not) to see that that was one of the first questions raised by a Lutheran pastor on this blog.

For me, it was only very much toward the end of my journey towards the Catholic Church that I came face to face with the realisation that what I was holding up at the elevation and declaring to be "The Body of Christ" was in fact just bread. I think that was in one of my very last celebrations of the Eucharist. I couldn't do it any more after I realised that.

But your answer to Pastor Alms really confused me. I admit I never came out and told my congregation at the time (and, as I said in a recent blog on my site, to this day I don't flaunt this in front of my Lutheran family and friends either) that I didn't believe that that the Lutheran Eucharist was valid, but it was a fact I had to face that when I received Holy Communion at my reception into the Catholic Church, I was in fact receiving the body of Christ for the very first time. A wise priest pointed out to me that that did not mean that my previous "communions" had been without value--they were at least what we call in the Catholic Church "spiritual communions" (communions of intention in your heart when something prevents you from actual reception of communion).

I believe that every baptism I celebrated was valid (because, as in Orthodox teaching, this depends on the form and matter and intention, not on the ordination of the one administering it). I believe that the Gospel I proclaimed was the Gospel of Jesus Christ (even if it wasn't the "Full Gospel" as some would call it). I believe some of the marriages I celebrated were valid (most not, because they involved divorcees), even sacramentally valid because both partners were baptised (again this does not depend on the validity of orders). But no absolution, no celebration of the Eucharist, no anointing, no confirmation could be regarded as sacramentally valid because my ordination was not a valid ordination to the presbyterate. Surely that is also Orthodox teaching? In fact, as I understand it, Orthodox teaching is even that a valid marriage depends upon it being celebrated by a validly ordained priest (correct me if I am wrong).

So I am a little confused as to how you could say that you hold "that the Eucharist that I distributed as a Lutheran was the true and actual Body and Blood of Christ administered, by the wondrous mercy of the Holy Spirit, outside the canonical boundaries of the church." I believe that you could only say this if in fact it was Orthodox doctrine that the validity of the sacrament did not depend upon the valid orders of the celebrant. And I do not believe that this is, in fact, the Orthodox faith. It certainly isn't the Catholic faith!

Schütz said...

In other words, I agree with Dixie. I don't understand. Please explain further--perhaps a separate blog on the issue?

Fr John W Fenton said...

Dixie, David and others,

I apologize that I've not answered your questions as quickly as I answered Pr Alms. It's not that I don't have an answer; I just haven't had the time lately to formulate a thorough explanation. I wish to do that. So please, be patient and, when time for reflective writing is available, I shall post an explanation. And it shall appear, not in the comments, but in a new blog entry.

Schütz said...

Patient as ever!

Colin Clout said...

I too would really appreciate said post. I had thought Orthodox believed non-Orthodox Eucharists (and Greek Orthodox believed non-Orthodox Baptisms) were invalid. If I am ever to become Orthodox this is something I will have to get past. (In fact now it is, if anything, the strongest thing preventing me from being Orthodox.)

But then...this post, and a comment from an Orthodox friend. Everything is upside-down an explination would be much appreciated.

Rev. Benjamin Harju said...

I would suggest the differing takes on this topic reveal much about the Orthodox situation. For the Orthodox, there is what they know for sure: the canonical boundaries of the Church and regular ordination therein. Then there is what they are fuzzy about: where the Holy Spirit is not, where the Church is not, and so on.

Now, take this to the Lutheran situation. Some Orthodox see no reason why one should expect a valid Eucharist outside the canonical boundaries (i.e. a Lutheran parish). That should satisfy someone who wants a crisp distinction between valid and invalid, true and false.

Other Orthodox I've encountered, though, do not wish to limit the Holy Spirit. Certainly He is at work in the world to unite all to Christ. Not everyone is in the same stage of that "being gathered". Of all the different "groups" out there, Lutherans are one of the closest to the Orthodox Church - especially in view of the gospel and sacraments. There is much in common between the Lutherans and the Orthodox Church.

But for the Lutheran situation, all this depends on the congregation. I don't mean that in a theological sense. I mean it depends on whether a particular congregation actually practices what the Lutheran Confessions confess. Many don't. Zion Evangelical Lutheran and the Lutheran-Fr-Fenton did.

Now, from an Orthodox perspective, there are some regular marks missing from the Zion-Fenton situation, like the canonical boundaries and ordination within those boundaries. But so many other fruits of the Spirit were manifest there that I think it takes more stubbornness to insist that Zion lacked lacked true Baptism and Eucharist from Fr. Fenton's hands than it does to say we should not doubt his ministry.

The Sacraments come from God in Christ through the Holy Spirit. From an Orthodox POV this will all happen within the canonical boundaries. But, in the same breath, the Orthodox cannot limit God's mercy and working, especially when it comes to those who believe, who seek the things God offers in the Sacraments, and who seek to be united with Christ and His catholic Church beyond all time and space (most notably in the Mass). Does God deny this to people who don't first come to an Orthodox parish? It is up to God to decide this question, in the end.

I am a Lutheran. I don't want the members of Zion to doubt the presence of the Spirit, Eucharist, Baptism, etc. And as a Lutheran I don't think they need to, given the way Lutheran theology works. Lutheran theology puts the surety on the valid call and ordination (which Fr. Fenton had as their pastor, under Lutheran terms).

Yet, having said all that, I do think that Fr. Fenton is more sure about the validity question than general Orthodox theology allows. Normally he should allow for some chance that everything he did at Zion was empty, lacking all validity. But there is one wild card, that perhaps even Orthodox theology will allow: experience. Serving at Zion for 11 years, something within the realm of experience may have pushed Fr. Fenton beyond just "I hope" to "I'm sure". And I think that Orthodoxy probably will allow him that surety, even if not all agree with him.

123 said...

I would say that there is a difference between saying non-Orthodox sacraments are/may not be valid and saying that nothing good came from those non-Orthodox parishes. John's baptism was not true, Holy Baptism and yet it was good enough for Christ Himself to undergo and it certainly placed the Ephesians in Acts 19 within the Church, though without the Holy Spirit.

I think of these questions in terms of how the Orthodox Church thinks of non-Orthodox: we hope for their salvation due to our knowing God to be loving, condescending, compassionate, etc., but we cannot say for sure they will be saved (without falling into anathematized Origenism). Bp Kallistos discusses this in Vol. 1 of his collected works quite well. I believe that God gives non-Orthodox Christians what is beneficial to their souls - and that may not in fact be communion in a real Eucharist while in wrong belief, unprepared; then again, perhaps He truly communes them healing their sickness of faith and lack of preparation filling in what is lacking taking their good intentions as right faith. either way, we don't know.