State Funerals and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod

By Graham Glover

It was a sight to behold – an unparalleled display of the majesty of the church and the state. From the time the hearse pulled up to steps of the National Cathedral, until it departed for Joint Base Andrews, the funeral service for George H.W. Bush was truly magnificent.

For a few hours last Wednesday, millions of people across America and around the globe were transfixed to everything that encompassed the service for the 41st President of the United States. To my surprise, it affected me in ways I didn’t quite anticipate. Maybe it was my nostalgia for a different political era. Perhaps it was the eloquence of Jon Meacham, the statesmanship of Brian Mulroney, the humor or Alan Simpson, the raw emotion of Jim Baker, the grace of George W. Bush, or the hope of Rev. Russell Levenson. Or it could have been the perfectly liturgical way those of the Anglican tradition perform such rites. But this much is certain – the funeral for George H.W. Bush exemplified exactly why state funerals are so powerful.

If ever it was possible to simultaneously burst with national pride and rejoice in the eternal hope we have in Christ Jesus the Lord, this funeral offered the perfect illustration of how such a thing could occur. Powerful indeed.

Reflecting later that day on everything I witnessed and heard at President Bush’s funeral, I began to wonder what a clergyman of my denomination, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS), would have done if asked to be a part of such an event. Initially I thought, “not much”, since we in the LCMS are always conscious of our doctrinal purity, never wanting to be accused of participating in unionistic religious services. (And it is patently obvious that if an LCMS clergyman participated in an Episcopalian funeral with vested clergy from other denominations and faith traditions part of the “official party”, cries of unionism would have erupted immediately.) But then I thought, “why not”? Why wouldn’t we in the LCMS want to be part of a service that clearly and unabashedly shared the Gospel of Jesus? From the opening prayers to the selected readings – the hymns to the sermon, the entire service was centered around the proclamation of our mutual faith in Christ.

But unless there were only LCMS clergy participating, and said clergy had absolute control over everything that was included in the service, I’m left with the only answer to my question to be, “No.” No LCMS clergyman would ever be part of a state funeral like we witnessed last week – at least no LCMS clergyman who takes the teachings of our Synod seriously.

And this realization has left me in a theological funk.

Look, I know our Synod was born in a strong rebuke of unionism. I understand this heritage and would have gladly joined my Lutheran brothers in rebuking the Prussian Union of the mid-19th century. I also acknowledge that our Synod has some significant theological differences with the Episcopalian Church (the denomination that “hosted” President Bush’s funeral), one of which was vividly on display in the form of female clerics. This is why I’m sympathetic to the concern that the participation of an LCMS clergyman in such an event could give the false impression that we are in full theological agreement with the other clerics participating in the funeral.

But does this concern really matter? Does the slight chance that this impression may occur to some preclude an LCMS clergyman from participating in such an event? I’m no longer sure.

In light of the theological (and political) realities in which we live and given the powerful message of the Gospel that President Bush’s proclaimed to millions of Christians and non-Christians alike, I wonder how an LCMS clergyman could ever say anything but, “Yes” to such an opportunity.

And if “Yes” is the answer to that question, then it may be time for the LCMS to radically reconsider what unionism means for Lutherans living in 2018 America.