Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Close(d) Communion and the Confession of the Church

Dr. Matthew Becker recently highlighted the case of Pr. Robert Stuenkel who admitted to communing with his wife in an ELCA church and now finds himself under the cloud of discipline for his actions.  However, beyond Stuenkel's personal situation, Dr. Becker takes the opportunity to expand his discussion to the Synod's overall policy and practice regarding Close Communion.  Having faced this issue in my own parish with all the emotion and divisiveness that it can often bring, I understand the difficulties involved in the actual application of this policy. It is not my intention of arguing the pros and cons of the Synod's close(d) communion practice or the general tenets of our fellowship practice, although such would be a useful discussion.  I simply wish to ponder the implications of dispensing with our policies in these areas and what it would mean, long term, for our churches.  Now I do not propose strict avoidance of all worship settings in other churches, or the WELS policy regarding prayer, as Dr. Becker implies has been the case in Missouri at times.  My concern, at this point, mainly concerns fellowship at the altar.  Dr. Becker argues that agreement in the essential elements of the doctrines of the Creed and Catechism proper as sufficient for fellowship at the altar.  I suspect in stating this that he exempts from this confession the currently divisive teachings between  some of our churches such as differences on sexual orientation and origins, that he would see as not taught explicitly in the Catechism (despite their relationship to a confession of the Decalog and the Creed). 

Beyond the above another issue that comes to mind involves the reason for membership in a congregation and that congregation's membership in a given denomination.  Does membership in a denomination imply nothing more than a 'brand' leaving churches no more than differing franchises that happen to offer the same product but under a different name?  Or are they mere fellowships not unlike a service club, like the Optimists or Kiwanis, where one joins together for a common cause without the need for common agreement?  Or is this simply a matter of minimalistic agreement where we avoid issues that we know will be divisive?  I understand the struggle involved in the Stuenkel case as it has been argued energetically in my own parish.  I understand that many of our rank-and-file members probably don't even understand many of the divisive issues separating our given parishes.  But again, does this mean that our denominational membership is for all practical purposes meaningless?  American denominationalism is a difficult reality to grapple with, especially when compared to the seemingly simpler conditions in prior historic eras.  Still, we need to answer the question of what it will mean for the future.  Denominations exist for fellowship and confession.  If we ignore that on the local, parish level, then what does that membership ultimately mean for any of us?

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