E. Radner on the Episcopal Church


Ephraim Radner, an Episcopalian teaching at Wycliffe College, Toronto, and one of the most profound ecumenical and theological observers of the moment, has some harsh words for his own church here. The ELCA has not come to this point yet, but the road lies ahead of us and we should take heed.

18 Responses to “E. Radner on the Episcopal Church”

  1. Pr. Ian Wolfe Says:

    The Rev. Dr. Radner concludes his essay with this, “The Episcopal Church, as we have known it and given ourselves to its ministry, is over. But the Gospel is alive, and the Church that is Christ’s Body given, takes us to a new place.”

    Dr. Root you state that the ELCA has not yet come to this point. What things need to fall before the ELCA is at that point? What things must happen before Dr. Radner’s words may be said of the ELCA, “The ELCA, as we have known it and given ourselves to its ministry, is over”? I agree with you that the state of TEC is a little more advanced than ours, but not by much. Open communion with the non-baptized and the faithful of other religions seems to be taking place within our congregations, similar to TEC parishes. The issues of sexuality are creating if not physical schism then at least a schism of proclamation. The ELCA is falling into a similar “moral bankruptcy” like Dr. Radner speak of TEC. We’ve given up the orthodox spiritual legacy in our worship (ELW), our top Lutheran Theologians are hard to find within our ecclesial structure, seminary education has lost its doctrinal moorings and mandate to teach “The Faith” and rather teach the latest progressive theology, biblical interpretation, and social justice cause, again like TEC. So what is left? How much further down the road is there yet to go?

  2. Gregory Davidson Says:

    I’m deeply encouraged by Dr. Radner’s reminder of the importance of continuing faithfulness. May God help us obey with joy!

  3. Pr. Lance Henderson Says:

    Ian, I looked at your question and put together an inventory. Granted, much of it is anecdotal, but you can tell me how your thoughts agree or disagree with it.

    ‘1. There are some rather stark objective or quantifiable …
    a. TEC, over the past decade, and after a few years of reinvigorated growth, has plummeted in its active membership’

    Since its inception, the ELCA has shown a steady incline without the benefit of “a few years of invigorated growth.”

    ‘b. The fact that average financial giving to the church per pledging family has actually increased over this time is a sign of willing support by this dwindling membership.’

    I haven’t looked up the latest information, but I will hypothesize. I surmise this may not reflect the increased giving of the faithful remnant, but rather it speaks to the general aging of TEC and ELCA membership. Older folks tend to give more than younger folks.

    ‘c. It is a bellwether of this set of dynamics that several of our seminaries have faced or will soon face their own inability to continue in existence.’

    Nothing to add here, but “ditto”.

    ‘… the Anglican intellectual tradition that is embodied by and that has derived from TEC is bankrupt…’

    The flight of Lutheran intelligentsia to Roman and the Orthodox church is well-known. There remains a good number of active minds at work in the ELCA (present blogsite host included). However, looking at the staffs of ELCA seminaries and Lutheran college theology departments, there remains an unhealthy trend that is overly dependent upon historical criticism and self-defined narrow theologies.

    ‘2. Perhaps more debatable is the moral unraveling of TEC – debatable among conflicted Anglicans, in any case, although not much among onlookers to our arguments.
    a. For 6 years now, TEC has descended into a morass of public and expensive civil litigation among its members and former members…’

    Our church structure and constitution will likely dissuade much of this. Thanks be to God for that mercy.

    ‘b. Meanwhile, the public malice exhibited by Anglicans – many still members of TEC, others who have left – one towards another, on blogs, and in public statements…’

    I might take some issue with this point of Radner’s. My question is—regarding the TEC or the ELCA—is anyone really watching? Church membership is so often a matter of the local dynamic over any other matter that I wonder if anyone cares to be an outside observer. The exception is, of course, when the national church issues embroil a congregation into a local conflict. When these conflicts result in a departure of a good percentage of the membership, those that remain—in the absence of faithful leadership—are either left holding onto their “circle the wagon” mentalities or become desperate to “get new members”.

    ‘c. Bound up with this spiritual disintegration… altering the gifts of liturgical order on personal whims, spewing misinformation from pulpits while indulging idiosyncratic spiritual predilections with complete disdain for the gifts of former generations.’

    Oddly enough, I suggest our spiritual disintegration and subsequent indulgent ways and disdain are most visible as one moves up the chain. I have in mind our National Youth Gatherings. In some respects, this is among our most “successful” ministries. (It pays for itself!) It is so large that only a handful of cities in the US can host it. And yet, many adults I know return shocked at the overt and conspicuous emphasis on particular social gospels and the outright condemnation of any sort of tradition. I placed the word “successful” in quotes because it begs the question, does the NYG actually aid in forming faithful people?

    To add, from my seminary experience, I have been told that Candidacy retreats and Synodical Assemblies are rife with experimental worship.

    Lastly, a personal experience. My daughter returned from camp this summer. I asked her what the theme was. Her reply was something about preparing to be servants of God. Not bad, I suppose, but I recall going to camp too. Our theme? Galatians. I bring this up not to be a nostalgic, but to illustrate how our structures today decide a theme and then select the scripture to support it. Contrast this to studying scripture and determining what themes develop from it.

    ‘e. I leave aside the notorious matter of sexuality, at least from a theological perspective. The attempt that the majority of TEC’s leaders have made to normalize the sexual behavior of a tiny minority of people, and then to build normative moral and even biological principles upon this behavior designed to restructure the form and character of human relations in general, including marriage, family, and civil order, will surely go down as one of the great follies and social distortions of the late 20th and early 21st centuries…’

    Well, this is what gathered us here, isn’t it?

    ‘TEC has no more moral capital in the bank. It is all gone.’

    And the ELCA? Yeah, that’s a good question.

    ‘3. And so, to the missionary accounting.’

    Congregations that have decided to redirect or postpone giving benevolence to the ELCA are often asked in blistering manner, “What about mission?!” The question is asked in a way that implies a congregation is abdicating its responsibility to the hungry and disaster-stricken or is impairing start-up congregations. The former is a non-starter. There are a myriad of ways to support those needs that do not necessitate a big check from Chicago. However, the latter is a more curious matter. Yet it stands to reason, if a congregation is redirecting benevolence as an extension of what it believes it is being faithful in the face of an unfaithful ELCA churchwide, then why would that same congregation feel establishing a new congregation under the direction and leadership of ELCA churchwide would be a faithful thing to do? I cringe as I type this because it sounds brutal. Yet, the logic remains.

    I leave it for comment.

  4. Pr. Ian Wolfe Says:


    I appreciate your catalogue of comparisons. One question though under #1 has the ELCA shown a steady “incline” in worship attendance? The numbers I know show that the ELCA has shown a precipitous decline in congregational membership. Aren’t we close to being about 1 million members down from when the ELCA began (a little over 5 mil to now a little over 4 mil)? I don’t know the difference between membership and average attendance.

    In reading Dr. Radner’s essay I couldn’t help but finding comparisons, which we can see in our own denomination. That’s why I am curious as to what Dr. Root is getting at as to how we have not yet come to the point as TEC has. What must finally fall before we can say Dr. Radner’s words are true of our denomination as well.

    Perhaps I am misreading Dr. Radner, but it seems as he has come to the point of saying “enough is enough” or “wake up(!) the TEC as we have known and loved it is over.” Is this yet a valid statement to make of the ELCA? If not, what will be the tipping point? I ask this not because I’m really itching to “stick it to the ELCA” with such hard language, but rather because until we come to that point we can not make the turn that Dr. Radner is longing and hoping for, a renewed faithful unity and witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. At some point we need to face the honesty of the mirror as Dr. Rander tries to do in his essay. Only will that honesty lead to a renewal of the church (Law-Gospel).

  5. Lance Henderson Says:

    Yes, you are correct. Despite my best self-editting, that is a typo. Our ELCA has declined by every metric.

    It is worth noting that one increase sought by the ELCA was in its percentage of white members. This, I believe, was a worthwhile goal. And how effective have we been over 20 years? Well, that number has skyrocketed from 3% to 4%. Sadly, a lot of people have spent time, money and careers towards this goal and this is the result.

    I recall vividly the day Dr. Baker lambasted some of us for talking about “the ELCA” when we ought to be saying “our ELCA”. I’ve got no desire to stick it to our ELCA either. I am an ELCA Lutheran. My congregation is an ELCA congregation.

    …A child, however, who had no important job and could only see things as his eyes showed them to him, went up to the carriage.
    “The Emperor is naked,” he said.
    “Fool!” his father reprimanded, running after him. “Don’t talk nonsense!” He grabbed his child and took him away. But the boy’s remark, which had been heard by the bystanders, was repeated over and over again until everyone cried:
    “The boy is right! The Emperor is naked! It’s true!”
    The Emperor realized that the people were right but could not admit to that. He though it better to continue the procession under the illusion that anyone who couldn’t see his clothes was either stupid or incompetent. And he stood stiffly on his carriage, while behind him a page held his imaginary mantle.

  6. Lance Henderson Says:

    correction again: “percentage of NON-white members”

  7. Rafe Allison Says:

    Greetings All,
    Lance, Ian, and others, thank you for your contributions to the discussion, I’ve been following with interest. As for where “our” ELCA might be vis-a-vis the TEC I think we’re definitely on the same trajectory. The only thing “left to fall” as Ian puts it, would be the final implementation of what has been proposed/approved by CWA and whatever reaction there may be to that implementation from the grass-roots. It appears that at the last ELCA Council meeting the secretary went to some effort to point out that very few congregations had left the denomination since CWA. Personally, I would not read into this either a sense of overall acceptance or apathy on the part of congregates but two other possibilities: 1. The time involved to discern, call special meetings, and conduct the required two votes. AND 2. A lot of folks are waiting to see just how all of this shakes out. I’m not making an argument to leave or to stay, I just do not believe the issue is settled. I’m afraid if things proceed the way they seem to be, we’ll only be a year or two away from where the TEC is today. (As an aside, I’d be curious to hear how the “bound conscious” proposition is working out in practice for those of you who have voiced opposition to the CWA decisions. Is your “bound conscious” being respected where you are?)

    Lance mentioned Dr. Baker. I too remember a comment he made to our senior class, to paraphrase: “When there is no longer any discernable difference between a Christian or a Christian congregation and the world around us, then we have abdicated our calling, conformed ourselves to the world, and ceased to be “Christian.” Is this perhaps part of what Dr. Radner is speaking to when he says the Episcopal Church no longer exists? As far as “we” are concerned, it pains me greatly to say this, but at the denominational level I fear the ELCA has become more of a progressive social-action PAC. Not that the church shouldn’t speak the Gospel of Jesus Christ as it applies to social situations, but when the church itself is divided over the application of the gospel relative to a social issue, how can it proceed to speak and act based on a simple majority of opinion-based votes with admittedly “no consensus?” It concerns me that this is symptomatic of a flawed ecclesiology, not the Spirit “doing a new thing.”

    Three recent anecdotes that better get at what I’m trying to say. First, a member of our synod council shared with me that “It is time for the church to catch-up with society.” Second, a CWA voting member from our synod shared how he voted and why by saying that he voted for the social statement but against the policy changes “because he just felt the church was not ready for this yet.” (Implication? The church should be, but isn’t?) Finally, in a local newspaper interview our presiding bishop was quoted as saying “we really realize that we must grow the Lutheran Church to reflect the diversity of the culture around us.” Is it any wonder we’re witnessing the watering down of liturgical worship (“because it’s too ‘churchy'” as one pastor puts it) including things like dropping THE NAME of the Triune God and replacing the church creeds with “faith statements” that often better resemble pagan nature/goddess-worship professions rather than statements of the Trinitarian-Christian faith???

    Whatever happened to Luther’s explanation of the Third Article of the Creed where he teaches that it is not by the individual’s own “understanding and strength” that they come to Christ and believe the Gospel, but it is the Holy Spirit that calls and gathers, (and enlightens, sanctifies, and preserves.) The Church is to proclaim the gospel but the Holy Spirit does the calling and gathering. Interesting that nothing is said about hip music, splashy techno-services, quota-systems, radical social agendas, or the corresponding “re-interpretations” of Creed and Holy Scripture that profess to support them. It is, rather, the Holy Spirit who calls, gathers, and works faith where and in whom he chooses. Some will counter by saying, “But we’re to meet people where they are.” True. But meeting people where they are does not mean changing to become just like them.

    In our parish I teach a two-year confirmation curriculum to 7th and 8th graders, one year of Bible (Yes, New AND Old Testaments) and one year on Luther’s Catechism. It’s hard enough when the culture around us constantly bombards these young women and men with the claim that all this “churchy stuff,” (including the traditional Christian teaching on marriage and sex), is passé and obsolete. But, when the message (whether purposefully given or accidentally implied) from some in the church echoes and reinforces those voices of pagan culture it makes me wonder why we keep persisting… and yet we do, in THE NAME of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

  8. Dan Says:

    Finally we are getting to the real question: What is that tipping point? I’m very close to concluding that there isn’t one. I can’t imagine what it would take to tip this thing if it isn’t already tipped. I think a lot of people out there are comforting themselves with the notion that there is this final straw that Dr. Root will let us know about when we reach it. But as long as Lutherans Persisting says we aren’t there yet, everything is cool.

    Lance, you make a VERY important point about missions. We aren’t doing anybody any favors by planting an ELCA church in their midst. I am actually SCARED to give to the ELCA for just that reason.

  9. Rev. Troy A. Mulvaine Says:

    It seems that many are looking for that one line in the sand that will indicate when the ELCA has formally crossed over into “not” being the church.

    My beleif is that line was crossed with the formation of the ELCA and the dismantling of the ministerium. Since its inception the ELCA has been on the same self destructive trajectory as TEC. One only has to examine worship materials and lutheran academics since the 50’s to see the obvious unraveling of lutheran orrthodoxy and the reimaging of the church away from Christ to that of man.

    Dr. Baker’s article is helpful as it reminds all of us that we are called to get beyond our anger and personal disappointment. Such public displaye are now rather mute after the CWA and destroy the public face of lutheran minsitry that is still being carried our by hundreds of faithful parishes focused on the great commision of Christ’s good news to the world.

    The road the ELCA has created has come to an end, the only question that remains is how will those faithful to Christ and Scripture organize themselves and remain mission minded in the midst of coming to grips with their grief and disallusionment?

    I am thankful for the leadership of Dr. Root and those who contribute to this blog who are not consumed or misdirected by the homophobia or self destructive anger of groups such as CORE or Word Alone.

    The road head is narrow and difficult to find, yet possible with faith.

    Per Ardua Ad Astra

  10. Pr. Ian Wolfe Says:

    Dan, at least for me I still believe that there is one. But I am not sure if it is more of an individual tipping point or an ecclesial one. I’ll leave that for the minds here to ponder. For me the last straw will center around the bound conscience doctrine, because it is the rules by which we are supposed to play. Granted the church did not play very well by them prior to changing them, but if we are to have any integrity then we should try our hardest to make our case within the voted upon framework (i.e. the Bound-conscience). I’m not saying that we must just live with it and move on (obviously if you’ve read anything I’ve written I would never say that), but that our case should be made within the rules and pushing them to their logical conclusions.

    I think the Northeastern Iowa Synod Council has attempted to do this very thing. The resolutions passed are clearly within the parameters of the social statement, being an entity which is entitled to a bound-conscience. The NeIA Synod has voiced its opposition and its conscience bound repudiation of the Churchwide decisions. For me this is where I think the tipping-point or last straw is to be found. If it is said by the Church Council or Sec. Swartling (who has alluded to this) that the bound conscience of our Synod is not permissible (even though the resolutions allow synod to have a bound conscience), then the veil is removed and our “valid” interpretation is shown to be not valid and not wanted. No more calls for “continued dialogue” or “living into” or “unity in mission” will be hopefully believed, because it will easily be seen that some bound-consciences are more valid than others. If a synod cannot have a bound-conscience, then candidacy committees and ultimately I think congregations will not be able to have one either.

    At least for me this is where I see perhaps the final marker on our merging path with TEC.

  11. Robet Jenson Says:

    A major difference between the ELCA and TEC is that the ELCA never was an integral church. It was wittingly created without a doctrine of ministry, since it was apparent that if even a minimal doctrine was proposed the parties would not agree to merge. And it has a sovereign body detached both from restraint by dogma and from any necessity to discern a sensus fideliium, and compelled to decide profound and difficult matters in a couple of days. Moreover, this body is constituted by the best rules of the 60s, that gurantee it will include many who have little or no experience of the church’s life or tradition. What would you expect?

  12. Phil Gardner Says:

    I am a parish pastor with no credentials beyond that. I feel torn between being a traitor wanting to abandon the structure that emerged from roots that included the Evangelical Lutheran Joint Synod of Ohio and other states, and being a coward, refusing to stand up to an institution that has torn itself away from such roots.

    Colleagues ready to depart the ELCA seem zealous to do so. After twenty-two years of a rudderless denomination, I can understand why. And yet, is there no remorse, no fear that, in departing, one is only furthering the heresy of schism within the Body of Christ. Their zeal fills the nose with the same stench one gets from watching FoxNews or MSNBC. No one seems willing to say, “I could be wrong.” After all, even Luther, after pronouncing, “Here I stand,” followed quickly with, “God help me.”

    “Cowards” like me who wish to hang on, either for the sake of what once was or for the fear that the devil laughs most as the ELCA splinters, need to have an avenue…a means for redress of grievances. I’ve told the assistant to the bishop for my neck of the woods that I’m staying, but I’m not happy, and that it’s been a long, long time since I’ve been happy with my national church. My loyalty, I guess, is more to her and to the synod staff and to the long-lived churches of my area, most of which daughters of a single congregation founded 150 years ago. than to some “three-expression structure” that was designed as a quick and dirty compromise that solved nothing.

    I guess my quest is to find a means of protest within the organization that has more integrity than simply staying in but refusing to pay up. I have never believed that a congregation’s commitment to the “greater church” should be called benevolence. It’s current expenses…the cost of “doing business.” If my congregation is doing business as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in our piece of the planet, then coughing up due dollars to synod and churchwide is part of the cost of doing that business. Flip the coin, and the ELCA has to hold up its side of the bargain. The ELCA is, conversely, doing our congregation’s business in the broader scope of Christian ministry and mission. Have we not the right to demand that it be faithful in doing so?

    What if there were an ELCAP, an Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in Protest? What if the name found its way onto congregational letterheads, ads in telephone books, outdoor signs, and whatever? Or, is that more of the same…more Word Alone, etc….that failed to head off the social progressives at the pass? Perhaps “Lutherans Persisting” would be an apt name in itself.

    Shall we give of ourselves to demand a new course? Is there a legitimate way for those of us who wish to stay to make our voices heard? I harbor no grandiose dream that the Minneapolis disaster will be undone. But, might there be a means by which demand can be made for a restructuring of the decision-making process that allowed Minneapolis to happen? Or, have all the horses escaped from the barn?

    Excuse, please, this interlude in the discussion. What passes for television news these days seems to offer plenty of heat, but a paucity of light. I fear that, in the above, I have done similarly. Mea culpa.

  13. Pr. Lance Henderson Says:

    Actually, Phil, I beg to differ. This is the first I heard mention of an ELCAP–interesting notion to think about.

  14. Dan Says:

    For me the problem with establishing a tipping point based on the details of implementation is that now it does begin to feel like a truly homophobic reaction. It starts to sound like we don’t so much care what our national church is preaching to America on our behalf just so long as we don’t have gay preachers in our neck of the woods.

    To me the horrifying thing was to discover 6 or so years ago that this was even being seriously discussed. I was relatively new to Lutheranism so I wondered how in the world that could even be happening.

    But other red flags started to pop up. In Sunday school we were asked why did we suppose the gospel writer “set” the story of Jesus’ trial at night. My answer was that he set it at night because that was when it happened, but come to find out the scholars say the night time setting was merely a literary devise to set the mood. I’d been exposed to religion professors in the past who believed almost nothing in the Bible was true, so this incident got me worried, but I let it go.

    A few months later in discussing Romans we found out that it is wrong to in any way attempt to convert Jews. I didn’t have any immediate plans to do that (because I’m lazy and chicken), but I was surprised to find out that the official Lutheran position is that its wrong. I guess John the Baptist, Jesus, the 12, James, etc. didn’t get the memo.

    Then a while later we were discussing the biggy: grace vs. works. As usual the position of the evangelicals was being misrepresented, as though they have no grace in their theology. I explained that the way it was always put to me, we can only be saved by the free gift of grace but we can only receive the gift if we accept it. But in accepting it we are also acknowledging that we need it and that Christ can give it. So we subjugate our will to his. But we have to believe and accept. No, no, no I was wrong again. There is no need for belief or acceptance only Baptism unless you don’t get around to it. And it goes without saying no good works are needed and no evil works are disqualifying. So Hitler is in Heaven painting pretty pictures.

    So I think the ELCA’s problem goes way beyond the current crisis and the final definition of bound conscience.

  15. Pr. Lance Henderson Says:


    The historic emphasis on grace has always been the shiniest star in our Lutheran crown and our Achille’s heel. At one point fairly early on, some reformers had to fight it out with a group who claimed that doing good works was detrimental to salvation because it interfered with God’s graciousness.

    If you’ve not read it, read Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship on the difference between God’s free grace (good) and cheap grace (bad).

    As long as there is sin, there are will be a twisting of the Good News.

  16. graceconspiracy Says:

    I appreciate reading this blog! Would you offer your thoughts on how “Lutherans persist in grace for the people of Haiti”? Thanks!

  17. Pr. Michael Jannett Says:

    Phil, I’d have to say that the concept of ELCAP is an interesting one. Where I am serving (a 200 yr old rural parish), we have a group of 5 lay folks and myself discussing how we got here and where we go from here. The closest decision we have come to is similar to your concept of ELCAP. Just letting you know that there is at least one more of you out

  18. Pr. Michael Jannett Says:

    …there. (Sorry. Last post got cut off.)

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