Last week I ruminated about the Church as busi-ness and what I saw as the tension between organ-isational conformity and chaotic freedom. We need both and both can get us into trouble. This week I’m drawn to the thought of alliances, fellowship, and identity – the issue of the local church and the na-tional or even global church body. If you had a church ‘line up’ across the theological spectrum, who stands next to whom?
Here in the UK I have described Lutherans as be-ing between the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England. But we are not like the Roman Catholic Church with their Pope (or Bishop of Rome) nor are we like the Anglican Communion with their Archbishop of Canterbury. One has au-thority and power, the other has precedence and honour and is a focus for unity, and Lutherans around the world have neither. We have a variety of ecclesial structures ranging from the historic epis-copacy through to a strong congregational auton-omy. We have national churches with their own histories and now in the 21st century it is rare for a country to have only one Lutheran Church – and one doesn’t really speak for the other! (Sadly some-times they don’t even speak to each other!)
For those who don’t know the situation in the UK … it is quite a Lutheran tapestry! Just think about it – there are at least 11 different Lutheran church bod-ies here of which only two are British. The ELCE began in 1896 and the Lutheran Church in Great Britain (LCiGB) in 1961. The ELCE has a Chairman to serve the synod while the LCiGB has a Bishop in the equivalent role. We have an interesting history between us marked by years of talking together and years of largely ignoring each other. That both churches are now part of Churches Together in England is quite significant I think (we’ve only just recently joined). But the differences remain and warm collegiality doesn’t erase them while the bap-tismal font reminds us to call all those around it sister and brother.
So this week will have been fascinating as the re-gional meeting of the International Lutheran Council (ILC) and the biennial meeting of the European Lutheran Conference (ELC) occur one after the other. (I am secretary of the ELC.) Meeting in Ger-many under the theme ‘Living in an ecumenical world’ the ELC will look at how each church func-tions – what issues they face – what is similar and
what is different – not to control or direct but to learn. And it is all getting increasingly complex. After WW2 as the debris was cleared away and the building began so did the dialogue among Christians – many of whom were displaced persons. You had the Lu-theran World Federation formed and also the World Council of Churches. Mission confer-ences of the churches not in either group evolved into the ELC which has a current membership of 6 churches (Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Portugal and the UK – all small churches in big ‘ponds’ and I sus-pect, with the exception of Germany, largely invisi-ble). The guest churches who are visiting this year include Norway, Sweden, Finland, Spain, the Czech Republic, Kyrgyzstan, and Switzerland. Some of these churches have been around for centuries, while others just a few years. They all have interest-ing stories! And the one thing that binds us all to-gether is the reality that we teach similarly and we don’t find other Lutherans teaching the same things we believe should be taught. And there’s that tension again – that is both a recipe for a church of one and for a church body that is global. This applies to all denominations and also for all those Christian groups who market themselves as non denomina-tional (an oxymoron, I’m afraid). Welcome to the face – or should that be faces?! – of the one holy Christian and apostolic church!
In all this history and structure the risen Lord Jesus still walks and calls people to himself. He is hidden and his church organisation is fractured and com-plex. Yet wherever words, water, bread and wine are spoken and used as Jesus wants then among those who have been called around them is the church – the people of God. That is why for all the talking that churches can do (!), it is what they say about the Word of God and what they say and do with Baptism and Holy Communion that is your best indicator of whether Jesus as Saviour and Lord and his Good News is their central focus (or not). — GS