President Harrison’s 85%

By Karl Wyneken

The fiasco in the wake of Pastor Rob Morris’s participation in the Newtown prayer vigil brings to mind a  prediction made by Matthew Harrison during his run for the presidency of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod.

In 2008, several years prior to the attainment of his goal of unseating former President Kieschnick at the LCMS’s 2010 convention, Harrison published an essay entitled “It’s Time” (see below).  An obvious aim of this fervent plea was for it to serve as a platform for his campaign: the “time” was at hand for new leadership in the LCMS.

“It’s Time” put forth the presidential hopeful’s plan for a process that would mend the fracturing and disunity that has long plagued the Synod.  His plan would be happily received and widely effective.  He ventured an estimate of how widely.  He didn’t predict 100% success, but it could be close: “It is possible to unify 85% of the Synod in doctrine, practice and mission, I’m convinced.”

Eighty-five per-cent!   Quite a bold prediction, eh?  But what about since Newtown?  Know what?  It looks to me like President Harrison did get the figure right!  Close at least.  There’s just one little problem: he was assuming that the 85% would be synod members in agreement with him and his theological position.

From what we learned from Newtown, I would guess that the figure is still like around 85%.  But it’s highly UNLIKELY that this 85% consist of people WHO AGREE WITH HIM, as he assumed would be the case.  Or at any rate, clearly those in agreement with him post-Newtown are much closer to 15% than to 85%.

In “It’s Time” Harrison also ventured an estimate about how long the process toward 85% unanimity would take.  The first section of “It’sTime” recounts the historical precedent , the post-Luther 16th century time of strife that led eventually to the harmony (Latin: “concordia”) attained by the Formula of Concord in 1577. That process, by one way of accounting, took ten years.  Just so, “It is time for a serious, decade-long effort—a non-politically organized and driven effort to regain theological and practical unity in the Synod” (note term “practical” and see below).

Ten years.  Well, by the time of this summer’s national convention (and Harrison’s stand for re-election to a second term) three of those years will be spent.  Moving on from Newtown, with little to show so far other than this staggering regression, what will be the fate of this prognostication?  Could the law of unintended consequences kick in? Are there grounds even yet for optimism, that the Newtown episode could be an enlightening one, a beneficial learning experience for The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod?

Many elements of “It’s Time” were incorporated into the three-pronged program Harrison’s new administration quickly, and noisily, adopted.  One of the three is the focus on what they broadly define as fellowship, or by the Greek term koinonia.  But just how really “broad” and inclusive is the operative definition that they sound like they embrace?  Given the history of the LCMS and sensing the theological bent of this administration, it’s a bit hard for some of us to take seriously that it’s koinonia in that broader sense that is their goal.  The feeling rather is that their definition is a narrower one that demands conformity to dogmatic authority and uniformity in practice.  One way to reduce the non-compliant element in the synod to just 15% could be by termination of membership.

The Harrisonians’ hope seems to be for total, absolute agreement and uniformity, both in doctrine and—note well—even inpractice.    In this very document, for instance, Harrison listed one issue in particular that he finds troublesome, namely non-traditional worship styles. But such things clearly lie in the area of adiaphora (matters of choice), an area of practice, where total uniformity is not to be rigidly imposed.  Or note the citation (above) referring to the ten-year timetable, which calls for regaining “theological and practical unity” (emphasis ours).

It appears that the Newtown episode has revealed rather emphatically that we have not been moving in the direction of a true Christ-centered unity, one in which we can live in mutual respect with reasonable and responsible diversity, and not one that insists simply and unquestioningly on total uniformity and conformity.  It looks like we now have a really long way to go in the next seven-plus years if we are to meet the goal President Harrison envisioned in “It’s Time.”

 

But who knows?  Might we still reach our president’s hoped-for goal, even at that figure he tossed out?  Could what has happened help us get to the level of 85% in the LCMS who are able to live without the irrational exclusivity that imperils our Christian mission in a pluralistic world?  Could we live and work in accord even with a reasonable measure of diversity and ambiguity in non-essential matters or hard-to-resolve ones such as the issue Newtown raised? And might this lead us to greater and more genuine unity in what is really essential for Christian community, living and working together?

 

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“It’s Time” can be accessed in various formats, courtesy of “The Brothers of John the Steadfast,” at

http://SteadfastLutherans.org/Its_Time

Or in its original graphic format at

http://www.scribd.com/doc/7861853/Its-Time-LCMS-Unity-and-Mission

For a further look at the divisive role these “Steadfast Brethren” have been playing, go to

http://www.stltoday.com/lifestyles/faith-and-values/controversy-over-newtown-vigil-exposes-divisions-among-lutherans/article_15397b42-0abe-5cc5-ad56-e730040a0d98.html

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