The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

The day after I returned from holidays I went to the Churches Together in England Forum (which is held triennially) and walked through the ecumenical landscape in the business sessions, at the displays, at the presentations and discussions and at meals. I was (nicely) surprised at knowing so many people there (we counted 11 of us having been on the Israel / Palestine trip together earlier in the year) and it was good to fly the Lutheran flag in this land. I wasn’t the only one flying it. There were three other Lutheran groups attending and so during the afternoon denominational meetings we decided to have an unscheduled impromptu one ourselves. Out in the lovely after-noon sunshine four Lutherans chatted. We represented the German Lutheran Church in Great Britain, the Council of Lutheran Churches, the Lutheran Church in Great Brit-ain, and the ELCE. We knew that there are differences between us in terms of what we teach and in terms of the history between some of us over the decades (because of personalities, politics, and professions of faith). We also know that mysteriously in Christ through baptism, we are related, and more so as we all claim most of the same confessional statements. So we have proposed to our respective ‘bosses’ that in September 2016, all the pas-tors of all the groups should meet for a day. In the 1950s and 60s all the Lutheran pastors used to meet and we wondered whether we could resurrect this again. We thought we could share how our church bodies came to be in the UK and what we’re doing for 2017 … and see if anything emerges from that. We wait to see if this idea even gets off the ground!

A few days later I attended our annual synodical convention and budget conference. The ELCE has now held 61 of them. 14 congregations, 6 missions, and 1 theological college got together to grow in meditation as Lutherans understand it and to discuss the business we need to do so we can work and walk together well. I thought it was a good synod particularly as I observe over the years an increasing desire to help each other (and not just be congregationally isolated to survive or fall on our own). But that doesn’t mean that everything is smooth sailing. We are stretched as a church body – doing many things that larger church bodies do but with fewer resources. What one does can have effects on all. So this Lutheran group called the ELCE is very much ‘family’ but that doesn’t mean we’re identical to each other or that we don’t have tensions between us. We also had international visitors with us from Sweden and Finland who told us the accounts of what happens when church teachings differ, change, grow (even that description becomes a loaded term) and the tensions, splits, hurt that occur.

It is the state of the Christian Church today, it seems to me, that we are finding increasing frag-mentation occurring from denominations or through charismatic individuals (think of the ‘new ex-pressions’ of church emerging) and within denominations. The tension exists between becoming ultimately a church of one or becoming one church where teachings are reduced to the lowest common denominator possible. The tensions continue because the church always has new gen-erations – and new always tend to the think the past needs changing or ‘renewing’ – but ulti-mately each generation is the same – the church is full of sinners!

And I have sympathy for the world that looks on and simply shakes its head (to misquote ‘a plague on all your houses!’).

Yet we believe that in all this denominational, organisational, and historical mess there is one holy Christian / catholic (= universal) and apostolic Church. The Christian Church is an article of faith. We can’t prove its existence but I do think we can behave – teach and live – in ways that help the world to see that we are all learners (disciples) of the one person who makes all the difference – Jesus Christ. Let us walk the tension that comes from different teachings about Jesus in such a way that the teachings remain clear but also that the world may see that we are disciples of Jesus by our love.  — GS