A friend, who is a senior active duty Air Force officer, and I have exchanged several emails regarding military chaplaincy. The conversation reveals some of the problems that the shift toward a more evangelical Christianity in the United States as a whole and the military in particular poses for non-evangelical Christians in the military. I have sanitized the conversation to avoid any complications for active duty personnel and use it with my friend’s consent. I have also added some additional reflections to this two-part post.
My friend wrote:
We have a small on-post Lutheran Chapel Service here in [an overseas] community which has become our temporary Church home. While we have always had an assigned unit chaplain (last one was a Mormon), most of our weekly ministers have been rotating English speaking [host country] ministers from the local community up till now. The congregation is mixed but predominately ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America with whom the Episcopal Church has intercommunion with), obviously open communion, tolerant, etc. -- we have really enjoyed it!
Out of the blue, we were just assigned a Missouri Synod Lutheran (MS) minister. Nice guy – young – in his late 20s -- he suggests we keep the [host country] ministers coming but he preaches half the time. As I suspect you are well aware, the ELCA and MS "cooperate" in the military chaplaincy program from way back when the denominations were a "bit closer." While that agreement stands, the denominations have "moved apart" over the years. They are not in communion. As a simple congregant, none of this is a problem for me. I am happy to be challenged. I don't consider the chaplain less Christian than I.
What bothers me is that he has stated to our chapel council (I'm the current Treasurer) that he is unable in good conscience commune with us. In the only service he has attended, he and his wife would not "come to our table." He has stated that he is "reluctant" to hold communion on Sunday's when he is preaching, and suggests we curtail our weekly communion on those Sunday's to resolve this problem. He has tenderly stated that he doesn't believe that women are appropriate for the pulpit, and perhaps won't be able to attend Sundays when females are preaching. I think you get the general drift here! I understand that military chaplaincies don't get to "call" a minister as at our home church, but I wonder why would he or the Chief of Chaplains (a Baptist, I think) believe this is a good fit.
I replied to my friend as follows:
Sadly, the situation you describe is pretty common. The number of Missouri Synod military chaplains was increasing at the time of my retirement five years ago and, I suspect, has continued to do so. Obviously, these individuals must be assigned some place.
In parallel with their increasing numbers, the Missouri Synod chaplains seem to have become more inflexible. I worked for a MS chaplain while on the staff of the Navy Chief of Chaplains in the late 1980s/early 1990s (he a CAPT, I a LCDR). He and I shared in an Ash Wednesday service, which was radical for his faith group even though we did not have communion as part of the service. The MS does not have pulpit and altar fellowship (their term) with any group except the Wisconsin Synod Lutherans (ironically, the Wisconsin Lutherans do not reciprocate, meaning that the MS in fact has pulpit and altar fellowship with nobody).
What changed the chaplain for whom I worked was his serving in Vietnam with a Marine regiment. He realized one day that if he did not offer all of them Holy Communion, then some might die without having had an opportunity to receive because he was the only Protestant chaplain available. Apparently, service in Afghanistan and Iraq has not had a similar, liberalizing effect on current MS chaplains.
My thoughts move in the direction of making the best of the situation that you can. From your description, the chaplain sounds more flexible than some MS chaplains whom I have known, e.g., wanting you to continue with the civilian clergy and being present when not conducting the service. An ELCA chaplain and I shared in an Episcopal-Lutheran service in the early 90s; one of us would preach, the other celebrate communion, reversing roles every week. When an MS chaplain reported for duty, he refused to attend when the ELCA chaplain and I were officiating and begrudgingly granted us permission to attend when he officiated, but only if we did so as lay people. The service was the responsibility of the MS chaplain; the ELCA chaplain and I had been covering until this pastor reported. The ELCA chaplain and I ended our participation, feeling unwelcome; most of the congregation then quit attending. Because this was at Pearl Harbor, people had more options than in a foreign country.
I'm lunching with the Episcopal Bishop for the Armed Forces today. His EA is a retired ELCA Navy chaplain. I know they both want to establish closer ties between the Episcopal and ELCA chaplaincies because they think that far greater commonality exists than between the ELCA and the Missouri Synod.
My friend responded:
Many thanks for your thoughts. I assumed that it might be an issue you have "lived" in the past.
I agree that closer ties between the Episcopal and ELCA chaplaincies (and perhaps the Presbyterians, Methodists, etc.) is long overdue. In fact, I would go so far to say that traditional denominational brand loyalties are no longer helpful inside or outside the military. Seen as negatives by some, they may actually be dividing us and hampering our efforts to spread the true gospel. And I am more than willing to embrace a diversity of views as we work to come together, although but there ought to be a few areas of norms and acceptance -- LIKE OPEN COMMUNION!!!
On the issue at hand, my proposal may be that we consider having lay communion during the service so we can continue to offer open communion on a weekly basis. My memory is that this is acceptable in ELCA tradition if there isn't a pastor available to administer it -- that is effectively the position we appear to have been placed in.
Thanks again for doing the blog. I am enriched by your thoughts and perspectives on a multitude or issues.