Compatibility of Church Agreements
A short presentation of reflections in The Church of Norway on compatibility of the agreements with the Anglican and Reformed churches - with particular reference to the historic episcopate
By Olav Fykse Tveit
My reflections here are based upon the decisions of the General Synod of The Church of Norway (CoN), and the premises given in the presentation of the proposed Agreements for the Synod. The Theological Commission under the Council of Ecumenical Affairs and The Bishops Conference presented these premises to the Synod. They relay upon the result of a hearing in the diocesan councils, the theological faculties and some others.
Let me start 50 years ago. The CoN was, together with other Nordic Lutheran churches - invited to discuss inter-communion with Church of England in the early fifties. Bishop Berggrav of Oslo, for some known for his leadership in the establishment of the WCC, concluded that, the CoN could not accept any agreement with the Anglicans that implied any doubt in regard of the apostolicity of our church. A step towards ecumenical fellowship could not be conducted as an “invalidation” of the ordained ministry in our church. This conclusion did not ignore that the conversations had documented how much our churches had in common theologically and historically (besides what our nations, particularly at that time, had together). The answer from Berggrav was based on a reference to the nearly 1000 years of the church in Norway, including a practice of bishops being ordained by bishops and the practice of episcopal ordinations. The answer also meant that a disapproval of the ordinations of Lutheran bishops by Bugenhagen was out of question.
The question of apostolic legitimacy of the Bishops and the ordained ministers of the CoN had also been a burning issue just a few years before, in the struggle of the church during the Second World War. The vast majority of the ordained pastors and bishops laid down their ministry (“Embete”), as a commission given by the state, but not as an authority and calling given in their ordination (1942). The nazi-loyal government in Norway denied the legitimacy of their ministry after that. The document `The Foundation of the Church` (1942) claimed the full legitimacy and authority of those ordained in an apostolic way/according to the apostolic tradition (“på apostolisk vis”). For the church in opposition to the Nazis it was a matter of legitimating the ministry beyond the positive law (“den positive rett”). The Nazi-loyal government appointed substitutes for most of the bishops, and even tried - without success - to have them ordained in “the apostolic succession” by a bishop from abroad. That would, of course, not have helped to legitimize them as “rite vocatus”. Seen at this background, any agreement with the Church of England could by no means be accepted if it questioned the ordained ministers of CoN.
The first comprehensive confessional dialogue, in which the CoN participated, was the conversations leading to the Leuenberg Agreement (1973). The Bishop’s conference by and large accepted it as “sufficient for altar- and pulpit fellowship”, but took no action to sign it. There was a noticeable theological protest against the “Protestant unionist profile” of the agreement from some theologians, but not directed towards the issue of the ministry of bishops or the historical episcopate. The reason for not signing was said to be a reluctance to let the State Ministry of Church Affairs sign a theological agreement. There was more or less no Reformed presence in Norway, either. The decision of signing was done at the General Synod November 1999, after two-three years of reconsideration of the matter in the CoN.
The first agreement to be signed and put into practice was the Porvoo agreement (ratified 1994, signed 1996) with Anglican churches. The most critical voices against that endeavor asked whether this would mean a fortification of the Bishop’s ministry, changing the focus from the basic ministry of the pastors, and a reduction of the influence of the Synodical structure. It was also asked whether this was an acceptance of a “necessity” of bishops and historical succession beyond – or even against - the Lutheran confession of our church. The signing was done on the premise that these questions were answered in a basically sound way.
One year later, 1995, a parallel agreement was signed with the Methodist Church in Norway (“Fellowship of Grace”). The importance of episkopé, conducted by bishops, was confirmed at that time. When the proposal to sign the Leuenberg agreement was put forward, the theme of compatibility to other ecumenical relations was raised with some force, i.e. through consultations with other Nordic Lutheran churches. The internal debate in our church was not very loud or strong, but enough to find it appropriate to make a statement explaining what the signing of the L.A. meant in that regard. The address for that statement was not at least the other Nordic Lutheran churches and the Anglican churches that have signed the Porvoo agreement.
The arguments for signing the Porvoo as well as the Leuenberg agreement have been based on the 7th article of The Augsburg Confession (CA 7). These agreements have brought our church into inter-confessional church fellowship on the basis of our confessional definition of unity. First of all and most of all the issue of compatibility has been raised in regard of our basis in Scripture and confession (the Creeds of the Early Church, the Augsburg Confession and Luther’s Smaller Catechism), not as much in regard of the relation to episcopal or non-episcopal churches. The approval of the agreements has been made on the premise that they in a proper way express what is sufficient for unity in the Church according to CA 7. And if that can be said together with Anglican, Methodist and Reformed churches, the consequences of that for church fellowship can and should be taken. These agreements have not been regarded as causing problems for the communio we after 1990 have with other Lutheran churches, but rather as decisions made on the recommendation of this fellowship of the LWF. Not to forget, “non-episcopal churches” still means, to some extent, Lutheran churches.
2. Statements of Church of Norway Regarding The Historical Episcopate
Although the problem of this consultation has not been a heavily debated issue within our church, the reception processes of the Porvoo and Leuenberg agreements have given a picture of how the historical episcopate is regarded at the moment in our church.
The Synod regarded the historic episcopate as a sign and tool for the continuity and the unity of the Church. Not as an isolated matter, but as one aspect of the apostolicity of the Church. The Synod explicitly said in the approval of Porvoo that if the churches involved (i.e. the Anglican churches) can accept the comprehensive understanding of the apostolicity of the Church and apostolic succession in the Porvoo report, then there is a basis for church fellowship. The apostolicity of the church is manifested in the church when the church is faithful to the apostolic faith and the apostolic calling. It is manifested in the intention to be apostolic in faith and life, sent by Christ to the world. Apostolic succession is accepted as necessary for the Church, in the sense of BEM and Porvoo §39: “Thus the primary manifestation of apostolic succession is to be found in the apostolic tradition of the Church as a whole.” This is understood being in accordance with, or, if you may, compatible with the line from CA.
Very important for the acceptance of the Porvoo agreement was that the following statement: “The mutual acknowledgement of our churches and ministries is theologically prior to the use of the sign of the laying on of hands in the historic succession.” (Porvoo § 53). This was in the hearings understood as a sufficient recognition of our ministries in the past as being in “apostolic continuity” (cf. P §52, the end). Secondly, and quite remarkably, in the reception process there were more references to the 1000 years of the church in Norway, and – in practice – an episcopal succession in Norway, than references to the so called break in this succession in the time of Reformation. A Professor of Theology argued in the Synod 1994 (with wide consent) that the CoN had historical succession before any Anglican bishop participated in Norwegian bishop consecrations, due to the apostolic succession in dogma and the practice of our consecrations of bishops. He argued that without making a big “theologoumenon” of it, the practice in the CoN to have a new bishop consecrated by a bishop, and pastors ordained by bishops (or deans as acting bishops) has deliberately been an important sign of apostolic legitimacy.
You may ask then, what has the CoN “embraced” (Porvoo §52f) by this step? The Anglican acknowledgement of the historical Episcopal sees and our practice of consecrations as signs of intention to be an apostolic church were welcomed, but not made a matter of discussion in our church. On the other hand, the Synod did accept the theological qualification of what has been the practice of our church, and accepted the historical episcopate as it has been maintained in the Anglican churches as an important sign of continuity. Likewise, in the perspective of ecumenical commitment it was not problematic to regard the participation of Anglican bishops in our consecrations of bishops as enriching, showing our unity with them now. Thus, what is new is a higher degree of theological awareness and appreciation of the historic episcopate as a sign of continuity and unity in the Church. We now normally invite bishops from churches which have maintained the historical episcopate to the consecrations of our bishops (but also representatives from other churches!). Besides that, it has been opened a door to a full sacramental fellowship with Anglican churches.
Nevertheless, there were, and still are, some question marks left in the margin, concerning our present status in regard of the theological significance of the historic episcopate. The Porvoo document says that our church is among those who are “free to recognize the value of the sign and should embrace it without denying their own apostolic continuity”. One interpretation of the entire Porvoo document had been that it “de-theologizes” the historical episcopate, regarding it no longer as “a not necessary theological construction to claim the apostolicity of the Church.” The Synod did not say that in the same way, but focused on the wider framework in which the issue has been settled. Nevertheless, there is still something more to reflect upon in this theology of “signs”. What theological status has the historical development in some of the churches been granted thereby, and what about the theology of the history of non-episcopal churches? How “free” are we “not to use the sign” in our relations to other churches? Such questions should be raised in the common Lutheran study of these issues.
3. The Question of Compatibility between Ecumenical Agreements
The Synod stated explicitly – in the ratification of the Leuenberg Agreement 1999: “In all our churches there are forms of pastoral oversight (“episkopé”). Such a function is necessary in all churches. The concrete structure and understanding of such a ministry of oversight may, however, vary.” That means that the Synod does regard the signing of the Porvoo agreement as a confirmation of the need for episkope and the adequacy of a theological basis for the ministry of bishops and a confirmation of their succession as sign of unity and continuity in the Church. It also says that one particular form of episkopé is not a precondition for the Church, or for church unity, seen in the perspective of CA 7. Further, it means that the CoN accepts that Reformed churches of the Leuenberg church fellowship are recognized as having structures of episkope, even if they are presbyterial and/or synodical. This is a statement that obviously addresses the question of compatibility between agreements with episcopal and non-episcopal churches.
Already in 1994, the Synod said explicitly that the Porvoo agreement does not complicate our relations to non-episcopal Lutheran churches. Hence the communio of the LWF did play a role as hermeneutical framework. It was also important for the CoN that the LWF had encouraged agreements of church fellowship with Reformed as well as Anglican churches (Curitiba, 1990).
4. A Compatible Profile in the Statements of the Church of Norway?
Summing up the Synod’s decisions in 1994, 1995 (the agreement with the Methodist church) and 1999 concerning the historical episcopate, I would like to emphasize that the decisions have been made in accountability to our understanding of the basis of the Church and its unity, given in Scripture and in our confessions.
To be more specific, it is done in accountability to:
- Our history as apostolic church with an apostolic ministry with Word and sacrament, including doctrinal profile given through the Lutheran Reformation of our church;
- The calling and commitment to seek church fellowship with other churches where it is possible according to that basis;
- The task of reconciliation of the manifold and complicated landscape of confessional churches in Northern Europe (it is not only dogmatic issues behind the divisions of these churches);
- The agreement with the Anglicans that the ministry of episkope and the episcopal consecrations of bishops are visible signs of continuity and unity in the Church;
- The call to learn from and share gifts with other churches.
These decisions are not made to be diplomatic correct, but to take the call to community in our doctrinal basis into account in a specific challenge in our time. That is true in regard of the agreement with the Anglicans, with the Methodists and with the Reformed/united churches of Europe.
As far as the theme of historic episcopate has been explicitly or implicitly addressed in the discussions, there seems to be a far-reaching common understanding in our church. It might be summed up like this:
1. The CoN – and other churches sharing the apostolic tradition in Word and Sacraments – are apostolic churches before common consecrations of bishops (with Anglicans).
2. The historic episcopal succession is accepted as a sign of continuity and unity of the apostolic Church. It is by intention and by practice in our church before the signing of the Porvoo agreement. It should be practiced in a more comprehensive, ecumenically significant and theologically reflected way after that.
3. Whether a pastor is legitimately ordained before participation of Anglican bishops in consecrations of bishops, is regarded as a not relevant question of the legitimacy of the pastor.
4. The agreements with Methodist and Reformed churches do confirm that having historical episcopal succession in the classical Anglican meaning is no condition for church fellowship. The basis for “church fellowship” is understood according to CA7 as agreement in the use and understanding of the Gospel and the sacraments. The Porvoo agreement shows that the CoN accepts that the historical episcopal succession is an important sign, but not a condition, for the manifestation of church fellowship. Or in other words, that there is a necessary distinction between what is necessary for the being of the Church and its unity, and what is important for the manifestation of the unity and the life of the Church.
Thus, it is neither the demands from episcopal churches nor critical questions from non-episcopal churches that has defined our profile in this regard. But it is an encounter with these brothers and sisters and an attempt to be – together with them -faithful to an ecumenical understanding of what it means to be an apostolic church.
Our history as the Church of Norway (the Reformation, the struggle in the World War II) teaches us that the reverence for historical continuity should be conducted in a dialectic relation to openness for proper critique. That means, indeed, that we have something to learn from others also in regard of how the unity of the church can be made visible.
Together with other Lutheran (and other) churches, our church should be involved in this study to explore further the Lutheran profile in regard of the historical epsicopate. I think it is important to discuss the theological impact of this issue in a wider perspective than the potential accept of our ordained ministry by the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches. What are really the main theological problems involved? As far as I can see, it is: a. The theological meaning of the historical development of church structures, which is a difficult issue in Lutheran theology. b. The question of legitimacy and authencity of the churches. c. The question of power in inter-church relationship; who has the upper hand? d. The visibility of unity. e. The aspect of accountability in inter-church relationships.
I think, personally, that the best way The Church of Norway can serve the ecumenical movement in Europe for the moment was to ratify all three agreements of church fellowship. There is a real danger that the European churches are divided into new blocks. Maybe not only arguments, but also actions of belief in compatability are appropriate in this situation?
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