An Open Letter to Bishop Matthew Harrison

Dear Bishop Harrison,

Some days ago a colleague pointed to this Facebook post of yours , widely shared and read in the USA and also here in Latvia.

I have hesitated since then in commenting on the post and its content, as in most senses it has nothing to do with me. As a member of a church not in communion with the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, and personally not attuned to most of LCMS doctrine or praxis, and indeed as a woman in ordained ministry, a vast and fairly unbridgeable gulf seems to gape between us. However, on further reflection I began to realise that your comments, Bishop Harrison, contain within them some profound potential implications for the ecumenical atmosphere as a whole in Latvia, and that therefore comment is legitimate.

Firstly, although your comment does not make it clear, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia has not left the Lutheran World Federation. Also, it is not called ‘The Lutheran Church of Latvia’, a name that emphasises a kind of folk church status akin to the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Denmark, often known as The Danish People’s Church (Den danske Folkekirke). There are three Lutheran Churches in Latvia, of which the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia, obviously, is the largest; but Lutherans no longer make up the majority of worshipping Christians in Latvia, let alone the majority of the people.

Secondly, there are implications to ELCL from membership of The International Lutheran Council and withdrawal from the Leuenberg Fellowship (The Communion of Protestant Churches in Europe, or CPCE), which will impact the ecumenical scene in Latvia, and this, it would appear from your post, is a source of pleasure to you. Leaving CPCE is ostensibly the first practical outworking of the Preamble to the Constitution of ELCL adopted in 2016:

The binding expression of unity for the doctrine and life of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia, in which the consensus of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia and its distancing of itself from heresies and schisms are demonstrated, are the Creeds inherited from the ancient Church – the Apostles’, Nicene-Constantinopolitan and Athanasian Creeds, as well as the Reformation era confessions which are compiled in the “Liber Concordiae” [Book of Concord – ed.] Standing on this unchangeable basis and trusting in God’s grace, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia wishes to obey Christ’s command to be a witness to Him and to proclaim the Gospel to all creation…..

ELCL Constitution (in Latvian) :

In other words, because CPCE contains within its membership not only Lutheran but also other churches whose origins lie within the Reformation, and whose doctrines do not precisely align with the Book of Concord, then – in an effort to distance itself from those who are heretical and schismatic – ELCL has withdrawn from this fellowship of Protestant churches.

In a sense, this should not have come as a surprise, since membership of the International Lutheran Council, for which ELCL are also to apply, would demand this of the church. ILC byelaws are clear on this:

Church Fellowship and Ministry

a. Fellowship, Unionism, and Syncretism. The Holy Christian Church is found where the Word of God is preached purely and the Sacraments are administered according to Christ’s institution. While all Christians are to work together wherever possible, altar and pulpit fellowship between church bodies is only possible where there is a common confession of faith based on the Word of God. Where there are disagreements between church bodies regarding the Word of God, we shall not pretend that these divisions are unimportant or give a false witness of unity by practicing altar or pulpit fellowship (ILC Byelaws, 2017).

Since ELCL does not have a “common confession of faith” with, say, the Church of Scotland (a Reformed Church), Methodist Churches or the Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland (a church body that unites Lutheran, Reformed and United congregations), then altar or pulpit fellowship with them cannot be practiced. Some years ago, at a public theological discussion, Archbishop Jānis Vanags restated Cyprian’s old dictum: extra ecclesiam nulla salus — there is no salvation outside the church. Afterwards I asked him how he would delineate the boundaries of the church outside which no salvation is to be found: the answer he gave was that it was defined by the Book of Concord.

This is all of a piece, of course, even though Roman Catholics and Orthodox Churches might well be surprised by the appropriation of Cyprian’s thought, which has traditionally been applied to their own communions.

The point, however, is this: by the actions of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod in encouraging these developments; and indeed rejoicing in a manner that is triumphalist and, in my humble opinion, not imbued with grace and Christian love, you have potentially encouraged the disintegration of the ecumenical environment in Latvia. Because, of course, the interdict on pulpit and altar fellowship, if followed through to its logical conclusion, would imply a break not just with seemingly distant groups such as CPCE, but also with ecumenical partners locally.

If there may not be pulpit fellowship with those who do not share a common confession, what does that imply for occasions of national spiritual significance, such as Latvian Independence Day, when the Roman Catholic Archbishop is invited to preach at the Lutheran Cathedral? How would our great festivals look, if the Baptists, Roman Catholics, Orthodox and Pentecostals were no longer invited to share in ecumenical services? I remember being shocked personally when I found out on a visit to Valparaiso University that LCMS pastors were censured for taking part in ecumenical prayer services commemorating September 11, because even on an occasion of national mourning the need to maintain doctrinal distancing was more important than offering pastoral care and comfort to those who were shocked, wounded and hurting.

One consequence is already visible and real. The Evangelical Church of Germany, a long-term, faithful generous partner of ELCL has now declared that it will no longer support the German congregations in Latvia because of the decision to leave CPCE, which is seen as being antithetical to the mission of EKD. This is the termination of a useful partnership, which absolutely did facilitate “being a witness to Him and proclaiming the Gospel to all creation”.

So, Bishop Harrison, I hope and pray that there is some way in which these developments will enable rather than hinder the Gospel in Latvia, and will further Christian unity rather than dividing us more than we already are. To paraphrase Sasse, the future belongs to those who dare to confess the good news of Jesus Christ, and this is more than ever true in our fractured and polarised world.

Your sister in Christ,

Jāna Jēruma Grīnberga, Bishop Emerita

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