Last weekend was the District convention for the Wyoming (and Nebraska Panhandle!) portion of the LCMS. Months ago I was chosen to be the circuit visitor nominee elect. This past weekend, that was made official by vote of the convention, and, for the next 26 days, I am the Circuit Visitor Elect.
At the end of the convention, all newly elected officers are installed. First, the newly elected District President is installed by the Synod President (or his representative – in our case, 5th VP Nabil Nour.) Then, the newly installed DP installs all of the district officers. Given our aversion to bishops, it was interesting to see that new District Presidents are given a bible, book of concord, a copy of canon law, and a pectoral cross – the marks of the bishop. And yet, this was all done at the front of a hotel ballroom, with no vestments in sight.
Another quirk of the installation rites is that there seem to be a variety of different authors of rites, and it seems to me as if, perhaps they had a falling out and were no longer communicating by the time the agenda was adopted. What would make me say this? The rites themselves ask much the same things of the officers, but the manner of asking is very different in each case.
When compared the other rites of the church, the difference is striking. In Baptism, Admission to the Sacrament before Confirmation, Confirmation, Affirmation of Faith, and Reception of New Members by Transfer, there is a sameness to the questions asked. Do you believe in God the Father Almighty…? Do you believe in Jesus Christ…? Do you believe in the Holy Spirit…? Excluding the confirmation vows (which should definitely be excluded from the church), it would be hard for those who do not study liturgy to guess which of the majority of vows specifically go with which rite. In many cases, the questions are exactly the same.
The installation rites for District officers, however, is a different colored horse entirely. The vows for District President are reminiscent of, but decidedly different than, the ordination rite. For Vice Presidents, they are understandably shorter. But the series of questions about fidelity to scripture, the confessions, and the handbook of synod, are combined into one question, with the synod handbook getting top billing. For Circuit visitors, the questions are individually asked, and switched back to the order given to the President, but in a totally different format. To put it another way, there is more similarity in the Gloria in Excelsis in Divine services 1 and 3, than there is in the installation rites for district officers. It is actually rather bizarre.
As a circuit visitor, I was specifically asked about my adherence to Scripture and the Confessions. Then I was asked “Do you solemnly promise to carry out the duties of your office in accordance with the Constitution and Bylaws of the Synod and of the Wyoming District? If so, then answer: I do.” I am willing to set aside the strangeness of asking the question according to the pattern of the wedding rite in this, and only this, installation rite for synod officials. But this is the only time a district official is asked unequivocally about adherence to the bylaws. Even the District President only has to promise to do so “With the help of God.”
This is a strange thing to require. After all, the constitution itself admits that the synod could err. “Accordingly, no resolution of the Synod imposing any- thing upon the individual congregation is of binding force if it is not in accordance with the Word of God…” And yet, the Circuit Counselor “solemnly promises” to follow the bylaws of synod, regardless of whether or not the synod has erred. Now, this promise is made not in God’s holy house before the altar of the Lord, but at the front of a hotel ballroom, in front of a movie screen. But does that matter?
Our subscription to Holy Scripture is absolute. It is the Word of God. Our subscription to the Lutheran Confessions is unconditional. They agree with the word of God. Our agreement to walk together as a synod is always conditional. We agree only insofar as the synod agrees with the Word of God. Yet, the installation rite does not acknowledge what the constitution does – the synod can err, and when it does the members of synod are not bound to follow the synod.
So, can I take a vow that is unequivocal to follow rules that are only binding in a quatenus way? Well, since the constitution says we only follow the synod when it doesn’t conflict with Scripture and the Confessions, in a sense, that quatenus promise is built in to any promise about synod bylaws. On the other hand, there is a great deal of confusion in our synod regarding the proper order to all of this. Circuit Visitors are told that the seal of the confessional – which must be absolute in an orthodox church – is less important than synod bylaws and procedures. Rulings of the CCM and CTCR, we are told, “must be followed”, even should those rulings conflict with the word of God. And, of course, the entire concept of “lay ministry” conflicts with Augustana XIV.
In the Wyoming District, shortly before the installation, we passed a resolution specifically saying that all officers are expected to follow the word of God regardless of what the synod says. And yet, I do wonder if it might be better in the future, for the sake of absolute clarity, to not only standardize the language of the promises of district officials, but to be clear that any such promises are subject first and foremost to the word of God. And for goodness sake, let’s reserve the I do‘s for the wedding rite.