One of the main things I’ve written about in this space over the last year has been reflecting on my New Pennsylvania Life—not so new, now, having passed the year mark more than a month ago. In March of 2017 I left my parish where I’d served for 11 ½ years to move here, where my husband started as rector of St Paul’s Episcopal Church in Mt. Lebanon, just south of Pittsburgh. I’ve been surprised at what a homecoming it has been; more than 20 years ago when I left my hometown, Erie, 120 miles north of here, I never thought I’d be back. It turns out I really like Pennsylvania.
Part of the plan was to have some time to adjust before getting into a parish. Maybe a month or two. It’s been 14. But worth the wait: I’m excited to share that I’m now the recommended candidate for St John Lutheran (ELCA) in Carnegie, PA (5 miles southwest of the city of Pittsburgh, 5 miles northwest of where I live). This means that after I meet everyone and lead the service next week, the congregation will have a vote and decide whether to call me as their pastor.
I was in college and not paying a ton of attention when the 1999-2000 “Agreement of Full Communion-A Call to Common Mission” was adopted. For more than a hundred years, various configurations of Lutherans and Anglicans had been in conversation, trying to live out Jesus’ instruction “to be One, as I and the Father are One.” The places we are One are many more than the places where we differ. Our liturgies are very similar, we already shared music, prayer, and theologies of the Eucharist. The ELCA explains the meaning of full communion this way:
Full communion is when two denominations develop a relationship based on a common confessing of the Christian faith and a mutual recognition of Baptism and sharing of the Lord’s Supper. This does not mean the two denominations merge; rather, in reaching agreements, denominations also respect differences. These denominations worship together, may exchange clergy and also share a commitment to evangelism, witness and service in the world. Each entity agrees that even with differences, there is nothing that is church-dividing.
The ELCA has full communion relationships with other denominations, as well: The Presbyterian Chruch (USA), United Church of Christ, The Episcopal Church, The Moravian Church, the United Methodist Church and, of course, member churches of the Lutheran World Federation. The Episcopal Church, meanwhile, is in full communion with all the Provinces of the Anglican Communion, the Old Catholic Churches of Europe, the United churches of the Indian subcontinent, the Mar Thoma Church, the Moravian Church, and the Church of Sweden. The Episcopal Church is also currently in dialogue with the United Methodist Church. We all love: Jesus, the sacraments, the creeds, the Bible.
I went to an Episcopal seminary that regularly used the Lutheran Book of Worship, and when I planned liturgy at my Episcopal Church I routinely pirated Lutheran Eucharistic prayers for our use. I held open office hours along with a Lutheran pastor and a rabbi in my parish in Massachusetts. I went to a Lutheran preaching Bible study for 10 years. My mom grew up Lutheran, in Sweden, and I cannot say how many ancient churches I visited growing up. I even spent 2 months working at a Lutheran Church when their pastor broke his neck. When I met Donna, the parish secretary from St John, she remarked that the lines between denominations now are more like dotted lines than solid ones. I have been fortunate to observe for a long time how right she is.
I’ve always explained the Episcopal Church as being about being “close to the ground.” It started over political conflict of King Henry VIII, and while his marital difficulties perhaps were not the first, best, most stellar reason to start a whole new branch of Christendom, the principle of local governance, worship in your own language, and celebrating the sacraments are a pretty good outcome. But those are not uniquely Anglican/Episcopal—Lutherans are right there, too.
When I read the pieces I’ve written on here about what not being in a parish has taught me about parish ministry, the idea that most stands out is grace. Grace, grace, grace. Totally free, unearned, impossible to comprehend or plan for, grace. Which, as it happens, is basically the central tenet of Lutheran spirituality. You cannot do anything, ever, at all, to earn God’s love. There’s no point at which you’ll arrive as being the maximum quality Christian that then puts to shame your previous efforts and gives you the keys to the kingdom. It will never happen. This is not contrary to anything in the Episcopal Church. But it is not the loudest note we play, either. Martin Luther says “God doesn't love us because of our worth, we are of worth because God loves us.” That’s it; it’s just love. Just grace.
The other thing that’s been powerful about this time is how aware I am of my call to parish ministry. It’s been great to have time to write for my town magazine and do a different kind of work. It’s really fun to invite kids over in the middle of the day when school is off to watch movies. (I am also very aware of what a privilege it is to have been able to spend a year unemployed and not have it be financially ruinous) But I’m not called to be a stay at home parent. I’m not called to be a magazine columnist (though I hope to keep doing projects once in a while). I’m glad I got to do those things, and I’ve had the sense to have fun this year. I’m also not called to be a chaplain, or the director of a churchy organization. Baptizing, burying, and being-with. Preaching and teaching. And those are not confined by denominational lines, either.
So send out extra prayers the weekend of April 28—there will be time for the congregation to meet me and my family that Saturday, and Sunday I lead the service and preach. The passage from Acts is one of my favorites; a Ethiopian eunuch meets Philip on the road, reading Scripture. Philip interprets Isaiah and teaches him about Jesus. The eunuch says, “Look! Here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” Nothing. "He went on his way rejoicing." What is to prevent us all from receiving God’s grace? Nothing. We go on our way rejoicing.
St John Evangelical Lutheran Church