Where Is the Crisis in the Episcopal Church Taking Lutherans?

Lutherans have adopted a new stance in recent years. Lutherans used to be the denomination that valued an educated clergy AND an educated laity. Lutherans used to be trend setters and thought leaders.


Somewhere in our 500-year history, we began to doubt — not God but ourselves.


Lutheran leaders, once able to forge their ministries around their own thinking and consideration of the gospel, now wait to be told what to think and how to react. “We respect the wisdom of our leaders” is an oft-heard mantra —one that compromises the integrity of our own tradition of free thinking. It abdicates responsibility. “Because the bishop tells us so” replaces “Because the Bible tells us so.”


We laity watched from the sidelines as our leaders worked for years to reach this “full communion.” Many of us had very little knowledge of the Episcopal Church. There are many Lutheran congregations with no Episcopal neighbors.


Why, exactly, was this something we wanted? What was ever in this for Lutherans?


The benefits are to clergy. They now have more pulpits available. There are also more clergy competing for them! The irony is that a pulpit has little influence any more, so why was this so attractive?


I suspect one of the motivations to Lutheran leaders was the more hierarchical structure of the Episcopal Church. Episcopal polity is more like the Roman Catholic structure in that the diocese owns congregational property. That’s probably fueling our bishops’ emerging propensity for grabbing congregational land and assets and ignoring promises made to congregations before the “full communion” deal. This includes their own constitutions, the contributions and wishes of congregations, and the local tier of leadership (traditionally a strength of Lutherans). The association with the Episcopal Church gives Lutheran bishops powers to crave that are absent from their own constitutions.


We now have 15 years’ experience as full communion partners with the Episcopal Church.


There isn’t much hope this long-sought relationship will ever benefit grass-roots Lutherans. Both denominations are struggling and the “full communion” seems to make us competitors.


In our neighborhood, the Lutheran bishop, the Rev. Claire Burkat, was working with the local Episcopal Church at the same time she was trying to destroy the neighborhood Lutheran church. Her involvement with our neighbors makes little sense. She told us that we were doomed because we had no parking lot. The local Episcopal Church has no parking lot either! Very few churches in the city ever had parking lots. Both congregations funded ministry by renting space for pre-school. We were in the process of creating our own Christian day-care program. Our congregation was larger at the time and more diverse. Redeemer had a far better location in the neighborhood and was a hub of community activities. So why did Claire Burkat believe in the future of Memorial Church of the Good Shepherd, tucked away on one of East Falls few upscale neighborhood streets. Why did she believe in their future and not that of the her own member congregation in the center of town? (Follow the money. Follow the power.)


All of this seems to tie in to the current happenings in the Episcopal Church today. The internet is abuzz with news of the happenings at what is believed to be the doomed General Theological Seminary in Manhattan—the oldest Episcopal Seminary in the United States. There was a dispute between faculty and administration which resulted in the firing of the majority of professors. Attempts at reconciliation have been dismal.


As the dispute is discussed, it becomes clear that things weren’t going well for a while. Class size was dwindling to the point that the faculty student ratio per class appears to be close to 1:1. Other statistics are starting to be discussed. Episcopalian congregations are reporting an annual downward trend of between 1 and 2.5 percent — not huge for one year, but alarming when repeated annually for a decade or more.


Perhaps they entered into full communion with us in hopes of reversing their own decline!


How are Lutheran seminaries and Lutheran statistics comparing? They may be troubled, too.


The whole debacle leads to questioning the wisdom of our leaders (perhaps too late)!


Thankfully, the end of the full communion agreement includes a page of disclaimers—which are rarely read—but may need to be moved to the front of the document!