An input in a colloquium on Episcope led by the Meissen Commission, internet 6 July 2021

In 2017, the Institute for Ecumenical Research in Strasbourg published a study with the title “Lutheran Identity – Lutherische Identität”. Being a member of the Board of Trustees in this institute, I also contributed to drafting it. But preparing my part, I realized that it is not easy to tell, where to find the identity of a given church. The identity of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland is a result of a history larger than her own, it is doctrinally rooted in the Holy Scriptures, and ecumenically defined by her confession, but the church is nevertheless theologically conditioned by philosophical and spiritual movements, and finally, politically submitted to various tensions and interests in the society. Where is the identity to locate? I nevertheless gather that the identity of a church is most clearly expressed in her liturgy, structure, and mission in proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ.

The identity of the Church of Finland is perhaps best to be noticed in her traditional emphasis on local parish life, but the ecumenical movement has widened the scope. An important dialogue started with the Russian Orthodox Church in 1970. Its most far-reaching result was a deepened understanding of our own Lutheranism through a closer study of Martin Luther’s theology. It pointed to a continuity with the patristic and undivided church, not to a break with the catholic tradition, as it had been claimed in the protestant theology of the 19th century. This in turn advised the church in her other ecumenical relations.

The early Anglican-Lutheran discussions between the Churches of England and Finland in the 1930s resulted in what was then called an “economic intercommunion”, meaning eucharistic hospitality in today’s ecumenical vocabulary. Anglican party could acknowledge the bishops in the Church of Finland in historic continuity, but it was found problematic that according to the Church law, it was possible for a dean in an exceptional case to preside over ordination of priests. For this reason, no agreement on interchangeability of ministries could be reached in 1936. However, twenty years ago, or five years after adopting the Porvoo Declaration in 1996, the General Synod cancelled the possibility of presbyteral ordinations.

After the WWII the ecumenical movement took on a full swing, and Anglican-Lutheran relations started to take new steps. At the same time, the identity of the ELCF also started to evolve from a pietistic, nationally oriented, and low-church-type of thinking into an ecumenical, international, and more sacramental, liturgical, and, when it comes to the Episcope, charismatic understanding. The episcopal ministry became less considered in an administrative context and seen more representing a spiritual oversight in preaching and presiding over the Eucharist, consulting with the clergy, and paying notice on public relations. Any “power” the bishops may have exercised in their hierarchical role turned into a power of the word. This development has taken place hand in hand with the overall development into a more democratically governed church. On all levels from local parishes to the General Synod with its executive board, the laity occupies majority of seats. I wonder if it is fair to say that the Church of Finland is democratically governed and episcopally led, because it is sometimes hard to distinguish between governance and leadership.

Let me briefly elaborate this question in the light of the phrase “personal, collegial, and communal” that is to find in many ecumenical papers on episcope. Both Meissen (1988) and Porvoo (1996) repeat verbatim this sentence quoted from the Anglican-Lutheran Niagara Report (1987), although Meissen does not mention it by name: “We believe that a ministry of pastoral oversight (episcope), exercised in personal, collegial and communal ways is necessary as witness to and safeguard of the unity and apostolicity of the Church.” Also, the Reuilly Declaration (2001) includes this notion in its acknowledgments.

This three-fold concept of oversight derives originally from the Faith and Order Paper on Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry (1982). (BEM M26, Niagara 69, Meissen 15 ix, Porvoo 32k, Reuilly 46a vi).

The above-mentioned study on Lutheran Identity by the Strasbourg Institute follows the same pattern and reminds that in Lutheran churches, the “supra-regional ministers have taken different forms according to their time and place. In this way structures developed in which the responsibility for supra-regional direction and oversight was exercised in a personal manner (by bishops or church presidents), in a collegial manner (by cooperation among church leaders or the conference of bishops), and in a synodical manner (by synod gatherings including non-ordained persons). Episcope is not always exercised solely by an episkopos (that is, bishop) but through the interaction of different persons and institutions in charge of the direction of the church.” (Lutheran Identity 34)

The personal way of exercising the episcope underlines the charismatic nature of the ministry. The charismatic character of any ordained ministry is based on the invocation of the Holy Spirit in the epicletic prayer and imposition of hands during the ordination liturgy. The pneumatological element of episcope is thus quite naturally embedded in the personal or collegial forms of oversight, but it is not as evidently part of the communal form. Instead, if there is too much emphasis on the communal forms in exercising episcope, it starts to influence on the personal dimension and narrow it into management. To speak about bishops as part of church governance in context of synodical structures with minimum or no spiritual content might twist the charismatic element of episcope from pneumatological to political. Already the BEM had in its commentary part encouraged the churches to ask themselves, how do they keep the three together and strike balance between them, and the Reuilly reminds that the churches are in a process of considering it (BEM M26 Comm., Reuilly 35).

The development in the ecumenical relations of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland after signing the Porvoo witness to a deepened understanding of Episcope. The identity of a church surely has a bearing on how the significance of Episcope is understood. But the same applies the other way around, too: the development in understanding the Episcope does influence the identity of the church – as far as it is possible for a bishop to discern it in a non-biased manner.


Questions for discussion:

How do you perceive the interaction and balance between the personal, collegial, and communal dimensions of Episcope in your church?

If you emphasize the personal dimension of Episcope, is it possible to discern between Pneumatological and Political?