I know I jokingly say at times ‘Put two Lutherans in a room and you’ll get three opinions’. If you can’t have a dig at ‘family’ then life’s pretty serious. The trouble is that family squabbles can be serious. In relation to church squabbles or Lutheran ones, I’m afraid I don’t have good radar or sensitivity to the reality that exists in (most) countries where there are different Lutheran groups. You see, I’m from Australia and in 1966 the then two Lutheran Churches became one (the Lutheran Church of Australia) and so my ‘default’ is that any Lutheran I meet is … a Lutheran (like me) rather than a possible ‘other’ (a Lutheran but not like me). Now of course I know about the US Lutheran scene and my work on the European Lutheran Conference makes me aware that Lutherans can be different … it’s just that I emotionally don’t start from that position.
But on Monday it was brought home to me that, yes, the Lutheran churches are different. Together with three ELCE pastors, I attended a meeting organised by the Council of Lutheran Churches where Lutheran churches working in the UK gathered to discuss the World Council of Churches new document ‘The Church: Towards a Common Vision’. It was all cordial and friendly as our Methodist presenter went through the document and he kept talking as if all the Lutherans present were one big happy family! Interesting to sense how others see us. (He was very complimentary.)
But it was when we went into small groups that my awareness of difference became pro-nounced. Of course we were Lutheran – we’d all say that! – but it was like looking at the Bible or a topic with different lenses. We saw some things differently; approached things from different angles; each having, I think (it’s all very introspective really) a different sense of what is ‘normal’ in Biblical terms.
Some comments I heard really resonated with me – I hadn’t heard it ‘that’ way so to speak – while others left me with a furrowed brow (on the inside!). Is it just because we come from different countries with different Lutheran ‘cultures’? Partly. But I sense it is more. We live out justification (the teaching by which the church stands or falls) slightly differently particularly in relation to ministry (what is it and who can be ordained?) and sacramental practice (whom should we commune and why?). Of course if we all ‘just get on’ we face problems with truth. If we all insist that our truth is the truth we face problems of a ‘church of one’ (mine). Unity and yet diversity has always been an issue in the Church (and I’m not just talking Lutheran Church here!). Organisations come and go yet something is needed. Teachings can vary yet consistency is essential.
I suppose that is why I think we should always keep talking – and probably more importantly, listening to God’s Word through each other – so we find the best way for us here and now to live out the truth ‘I believe in one holy, Christian* and apostolic Church’. — GS
* Or ‘catholic’ … and that’s another story!