I attended the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) Montana Synod Pastoral Conference 2016 from Tuesday, March 29 to Thursday, March 31 at Chico Resort and Conference Center. The clergy of the Episcopal Diocese of Montana were invited to join our Lutheran colleagues for this event. The speakers for the event were The Most Reverend Michael Curry, Presiding Bishop and Primate of The Episcopal Church and The Reverend Elizabeth Eaton, the Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. There were about 130 ELCA ministers and 30 Episcopal clergy present.
The conference started with dinner on Tuesday night, which was followed by an opening Eucharist. The worship was the first experience I had with the ELCA’s liturgy and Book of Worship. I found it to be quite familiar and yet different. The presider was Bishop Crist of the ELCA’s Montana Synod and we heard a wonderful sermon by our own Bishop Brookhart of the Diocese of Montana. His sermon did a great job of introducing our main theme for the conference of being an Easter people. Bishop Brookhart referred to us, as Christians, as the “resurrection squad” and as a “paschal people.” He preached on Easter Sunday’s gospel and it was wonderful to hear another take on a reading that I had just tried to tackle. Following the service, the presiding bishops were introduced as was Bishop Curry’s Canon to the Presiding Bishop for Evangelism and Reconciliation, the Rev. Canon Stephanie Spellers who was accompanying him.
Wednesday morning began with ELCA Morning Prayer which was led by Bishop Crist. Following that we had the first of two morning presentations. The first one was by Presiding Bishop Eaton. She did a wonderful job of starting to talk about being an Easter people. Bishop Eaton also made a very funny reference to recent developments in the Anglican Communion, pointing out that “The Anglican Communion thought it was a punishment to tell the Episcopal Church you can’t come to meetings.” Also, she explained the nature of being an inclusive faith community – that we need to have a harmonious voice, but that doesn’t mean we all need to be a speaking the same words or singing the same exact tune, we just need to be coordinated and connected. Bishop Eaton also stated that when the ELCA was formed in 1988 that it had a focus on ecumenism and cooperation.
Following Bishop Eaton’s address, Bishop Curry spoke to the group about what we are a part of and what we are called to do. He said that God is about empowering us and not controlling us. We are set free by God in Jesus and not enslaved to God or sin. God is not controlling, he’s empowering. Bishop Curry also talked about how we need to remember that while we are a part of an institution, we are also a part of a movement and that is more central to our identity. We are baptized into a movement not an institution. Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River and not the Dead Sea. And that is because rivers move and so must we!
He went further by saying that we are faced with the choice of chaos or community, because Jesus showed us how to be the human family of God and that is what we must do. Bishop Curry also discussed scripture by pointing out when it says “all” we have to pay attention because it really means ALL. He also noted the uniqueness of the genealogy of Jesus contained in Matthew’s gospel because of the fact that it includes a number of women including at least one rather unsavory character who played a pivotal role (Rahab).
Bishop Curry concluded with what our priorities should be by saying that we must reclaim the real Jesus and that reconciliation is key. The end goal of Evangelism is a relationship with God and not increasing membership statistics or the budget.
Wednesday evening the denominations separated, temporarily, to speak with our bishops, including our presiding bishops. Bishop Brookhart introduced every clergy person individually to Bishop Curry. Then Bishop Brookhart shared a few pieces of information with the clergy. Then we were offered the chance to ask Bishop Curry questions. The main question for our presiding bishop related to trying to better understand what is going on between The Episcopal Church and The Anglican Communion since the January 2016 meeting of the primates. He said that the bigger problem the primates had with the actions of General Convention 2015 is the perceived change of canons relating to marriage and not the addition of new liturgies. Bishop Curry tried to use an analogy to “Survivor” and voting people off the island with the Archbishop of Canterbury, but it didn’t translate well. Bishop Curry offered to dance with Anglican Church in North America “Archbishop” Beach, since everyone at the primates meeting was focused on how they interacted when they met. Bishop Curry pointed out a whole lot of the primates in the meeting were new since the previous meeting (including himself). So that changed tone of meeting somewhat.
He said that doctrine and polity are key. The primates’ decision was that Episcopalians could not serve as representatives of the Anglican Communion on matters of polity and doctrine. This impacts two people serving on committees or commissions of Archbishop of Canterbury and our primate. That’s it. So no big impact. Things could change after the Anglican Consultative Council meeting which will be held from April 8 to 19 in Zambia.
Thursday morning began with Morning Prayer – Rite II led by Bishop Carol Gallagher, Assistant Bishop of Montana who also delivered an amazing sermon. The morning continued with a presentation by Bishop Curry who focused on moving beyond ourselves and recognizing that we are a part of something bigger. The Jesus movement – it’s what we are a part of. Our motivation is to be a part of something bigger than ourselves. The life of the human family is at stake. “The golden calf of the self.” If it’s not about love, it’s not of God. Jesus is example of overcoming self-interest and self-centeredness. God is about the other. God is about love.
Then we heard one more time from Bishop Eaton who did a great job of connecting all that we had heard. She pointed out that it’s a reformation moment. We are changing. The world is changing.
She also referenced the great Dietrich Bonhoeffer who said that the opposite of peace is security, whenever you seek security there is no peace. Even in the beginning of the church, there was conflict within the institution – the struggle of dealing with the Greek widows. We are to overcome the idolatry of the individual. It’s simple, not easy. We must listen to our people We should encourage people to attend regularly because “we need you here, because if you aren’t here, our community isn’t whole.” We need a bigger sense of time.
It was an amazing conference and opportunity to spend time with our Lutheran brothers and sisters. Being able to spend time with the presiding bishops of the ELCA and TEC, who together lead seven million members, was an unprecedented event.