Greeting for the 25th Anniversary of the ELCA General Assembly
I bring you greetings from the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society, which has been the formal name of The Episcopal Church for nearly 200 years. Early in our history in the fledgling United States, we began to send missionaries to other parts of the world and to other sovereign indigenous nations in these lands. As a result of those missionary efforts, we are today present in 16 other countries beyond the United States. In spite of the decidedly mixed and colonial motives that were often involved, we continue in intentional partnership for God’s mission with former parts of this Church which are now autonomous provinces of the Anglican Communion, working together for the healing of God’s world. Like the ELCA, we are part of a global fellowship of churches in full communion and mission partnership with one another.
The Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America together celebrate more than a decade of similar full communion and mission partnership, which is increasingly bearing holy and missional fruit. We are sharing staff at the churchwide level as well as pastoral leadership in congregations, and we are seeking the healing of this world together through joint advocacy and mission initiatives.
I want to offer particular congratulations on your 25th anniversary. The Body of Christ has seen too many divisions through its history, and too few moves toward reunion. All Christians can give thanks for the initiative that brought formerly separate Lutheran bodies together in this country 25 years ago.
We live in an age that Phyllis Tickle has called an ecclesiastical garage sale – the next in the 500-year cycle of churchwide reforms. Martin Luther started the last one. The major shifts of focus of these periodic seismic events are profoundly unsettling to many people, but they seem to be necessary to God’s mission. They answer the challenge of new technologies and modes of communication as well as changing social and political dynamics. In Luther’s time it was the printing press and an increasingly corrupt and ossified church. In our own age, it’s about the speed and spread of communication with all parts of the world and the need for more organic connection in the body of Christ and the body of God. We can no longer live in isolation, even if we wanted to. And if we’re willing to look around, we can see the presence of the Spirit of God at work in the world in novel and creative ways. We are certainly more aware of the wars, violence, hunger, and suffering across the globe. Our part in God’s mission is to meet that need with good news of all sorts – spiritual, physical, emotional, and the solidarity that involves standing with those in distress. Will we stand together at the foot of the cross of the world’s suffering?
Looking at the world from that perspective can help us build alliances of solidarity with all who share the desire to relieve suffering and build systems of peace and justice. By way of example, this body has just received a major report on restorative justice and prison reform. This is also a concern of the re-forming National Council of Churches, focused around mass incarceration rates and the excessive impact on young men of color. The Episcopal Church is also focused on these issues, particularly around racial justice and reconciliation. The US Department of Justice is responding with new initiatives as well. There are abundantopportunities to work in partnership with all who share a vision for a society of greater justice.
The challenges that both our Churches have experienced around issues of inclusion of all human beings in recent years have reminded us that God is always at work – on us, within us, and among us. Some have judged our smaller numbers as faithlessness but it may actually be the Spirit’s way of pruning for greater fruitfulness. If we see ourselves standing at the foot of the cross, any such judgment will be far less important than our response. Jesus has given us to one another – all of us – and we will not live faithfully if we forget who it is we see or seek in those others. The body of Christ has need of all its diverse parts, working together, for the building up of God’s beloved community and creation.
God gives us amazing and awe-inspiring partners on this journey of solidarity. I want to give thanks for the faithful ministry of Mark Hanson as Presiding Bishop of the ELCA over the last 12 years. It has been an honor and privilege to share ministry with him during the last seven of those years. I have learned much from his prophetic and deeply gifted evangelical ministry, and I pray that the next chapter of his ministry may be a rich blessing to him, his family, and many others.
I give thanks as well for the election of Elizabeth Eaton as the next Presiding Bishop of the ELCA, and look forward to walking with her as we grow in our Call to Common Mission. We can give thanks for the excellent foundations already present for our common work, and expect further growth as we seek to serve God’s mission as ministers of justice and healers of the breach. We should anticipate a journey of mutual discovery of the gifts God so richly bestows on our two Churches, particularly in new contexts and populations.
May God bless the journey of solidarity toward that vision of shalom. As we pray so regularly, “may your kingdom come, O Lord, may it come on earth as it is in heaven, and speedily!”