Sunday, October 23, 2005 AD

Theological Education 
Lutheran Angles

What follows is not a direct answer to John's questions, but is nevertheless pertinent, I believe.

I am utterly convinced that, ultimately, the heartbeat of any church is its seminaries. Show us the seminary and I will show you the kind of church you will have in two decades' time. It requires little knowledge of the continental scene, for example, to realise that the demise of the once-confessional Lutheran state churches has followed in the wake of the complete liberalisation of their seminaries. Likewise, the spread of the 'Church Growth' movement from the '60s has had a dramatic effect on the landscape of the Christian Church, including the ELCE, and again the seminaries have been a point of entry for the movement within the various church bodies.

The size of the ELCE appears to undermine my conviction slightly in that the majority of the currently active pastors were not trained by the ELCE. However, I believe this too is part of the same, larger picture. Much of what will happen in Lutheran congregations (and beyond them) over the following years will be determined by the kind of training that takes place at Westfield. The seminary is fortunate to have a couple of native students at the moment, who will hopefully be able to receive calls within the ELCE. Hopefully others will be sent from the congregations from time to time. The preparation that they receive for congregational life will, to a significant extent, shape the ways in which (and whether) the Lutheran faith is to be known in the UK.

This is not to say that the onus should be solely, or even primarily, on pastors and those who train them. The church is not in any way coterminous with its clergy. However, pastors are the shepherds and the diet they feed the sheep makes a huge difference to congregational life. And all this begins at seminary.

This, of course, is a theoretical observation, but it may nevertheless be of great importance. The future of the ELCE is bound up to a significant degree with the future of Westfield House. Things there seem to look immeasurably brighter than they did when I joined the ELCE 10 years ago, and this should be a source of godly optimism.

Sunday, March 27, 2005 AD

What is the ELCE for? 
As I said in my opening post, the aim of this blog is to help consider what the ELCE is "for" - rather than just looking at individual issues in a disconnected way, to try to take a more "strategic" viewpoint; to allow for greater theological reflection and discussion, so that particular practical issues are dealt with in a manner that flows from a distinctly Lutheran perspective, rather than just a pragmatic, "what works" approach. So as a means of kicking off this blog, it would be good for each person who joins to summarise their own thoughts on what the ELCE is for.

My own view is that our role should be focussed on the following main areas:
  1. Spreading the Gospel in our communities.

  2. Serving the "Lutheran diaspora" within the UK.

  3. Promoting Lutheran teachings within the wider UK church.

  4. Celebrating (in both senses of the word) the Divine Service, and showing that the historic worship of the church need not be incompatible with living, breathing, attractive Christianity.
Not mentioned in this list - because I hope it can be taken as universally accepted within our synod, though it would be dangerous ever to take it for granted - is our calling to believe, teach and confess the pure Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, as we have received it in our Lutheran Confessions.

Fundamentally, I believe our calling is to hold our nerve. We live in an age in which some of the above principles would be regarded as incompatible with one another, particularly items 1 and 4. We are under powerful temptations - in the name of being open and accessible to outsiders - to abandon or marginalise the historic Divine Service in favour of the bland, "generic Christianity" of modern choruses and breezy, dressed-down informality that dominates contemporary evangelicalism.

The evangelistic motive is laudable, but the cost to our distinctiveness is, in my view, too high. The Gospel is not like a fluid that can be tipped into whatever container we like while retaining its essential characteristics. It is vital that we hold on, not only to Article IV of the Augsburg Confession, but also Article V. The "so that we may receive this faith" of Article V teaches us that the ministry of Word and Sacrament is itself part of the Gospel we confess.

This is also taught by our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ in His own summary of the Gospel message, in Luke 24:46-47:

"Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem."
In other words, the Gospel is not merely the account of events that happened long ago (Christ's suffering and rising from the dead); it is the proclamation to all nations by Word and Sacrament that the saving benefits of those events - forgiveness, life and salvation - are available here and now to all.

This is one area which I hope will be discussed in more detail on this blog over time.

Another area is our relationship with other Christians (point 3). I have real concerns about ecumenism, particularly from my experience of the Churches Together movement. More positively, my (admittedly limited) experience suggests that there are many Christians who find Lutheran teachings profoundly helpful when they come across them - the true & pure gospel strikes a real chord with them. This isn't about "sheep-stealing", not least since switching to a Lutheran church is not practical for most people, given the lack of Lutheran churches. Rather, it is about saying that we are sitting on treasures that could enrich and benefit Christians in all churches - particularly the teachings of the Small Catechism, which are "mere Christianity" at its best.

(Though, on the subject of "sheep-stealing", should we be embarrassed about saying that the pure Gospel and rightly-administered Sacraments are matters of sufficiently profound importance as to justify people changing church? The Roman Catholic Church is not squeamish about saying this; nor, in their own way, are many evangelical churches, particularly those that practise "re-baptism").

Anyway, these are just a few of my own thoughts. I look forward to hearing other people's responses to these points, and to your own ideas as well about what the ELCE is here for.
What does this (blog) mean? 
This blog is an experiment - an attempt to see whether a group-blog discussion format can make a positive contribution to the Evangelical Lutheran Church of England, as we consider how our synod's ministry can develop as it faces the second fifty years of its existence.

I first had the idea while reading the booklet recently circulated round ELCE churches of suggestions made at the "Think-Fest" earlier this year. By its very nature, a "brain-storming" session is going to produce suggestions of varying quality, and some of the proposals in the Think-Fest booklet were very encouraging, some less so. But the main problem with an exercise like that is it can lead to lots of itty-bitty suggestions, rather than a "strategic" sense of what the ELCE is for. What is the reason for existence of a small Lutheran synod of a few hundred members. in a country like the UK?

The other area where it was lacking was a lack of awareness of how the web could be used to address some of the issues covered: the need to increase the profile of the ELCE, to strengthen the ties between congregations and between individual members around the country; for improved outreach among our local communities (as well as the "Lutheran diaspora").

Hence this blog. The aim of this site is to enable members of the blog (and non-members, using the comments boxes for each post) to engage in constructive discussions about what the ELCE is here for - in relation to worship, evangelism, fellowship, theology etc - and how we should go about fulfilling those purposes in practice, all with a view to meeting those objectives set out in the Think-Fest report: more effective (but still distinctively Lutheran) outreach, increased profile in the wider church, better ties between congregations, etc.

Why a blog format? Well, I have some experience in Christian blogging, both via my own personal blog, Confessing Evangelical, and via the Here We Stand group blog. This experience leads me to believe that the blog format has some benefits for an exercise of this nature that are necessarily found with, say, a discussion board. It allows a core of members to develop their thoughts, which can then be sharpened and improved by the ensuing discussion in the comments to each post. It allows for easy interaction with other blogs and other websites.

In many ways, it reminds me of the "open source" philosophy which has had such an impact on the software world, through programs like the Linux operating system, the Firefox web-browser and so on. In his classic essay on open source software, "The Cathedral and the Bazaar", Eric S Raymond describes two key principles that make open source such an effective way to develop high-quality software:
  1. Release early, release often; and

  2. Many eyes tame complexity.
In other words, rather than a "cathedral" approach in which one person, or a small group of people, take a long time perfecting a product behind closed doors and then release it to the public, open source developers follow a "bazaar" approach based on interaction between large numbers of people. Frequent releases enable many different people to contribute to the ongoing development - people who may well have the particular experience that can find a quick solution to what had seemed an intractable problem.

The hope is that a group blog like this can function in much the same way. Instead of spending hours preparing finely-crafted essays on various topics, people can jot down their thoughts on an issue and post it ("release early, release often"), and then other people can contribute thoughts and ideas that help the original contributor (or other contributors) develop the idea further ("many eyeballs tame complexity").

Hopefully this process can enable a blog such as this to make a real contribution to the process of reflection and consideration that the ELCE is going through at the moment, and enable us to fulfil God's purposes for a small Lutheran synod in a largely non-Lutheran country. And even if we cannot achieve anything quite so ambitious, at the very least we will, hopefully, have some good and useful discussions, and help strengthen the bonds of friendship between our various churches within the ELCE.