Friday, October 19, 2007

The Unity of the Church

When the ELCA formed in 1988, it established a medical plan for seminarians that was separate from the larger one "rostered leaders" (that's ELCA-speak for Pastors, Diaconal Ministers, Associates in Ministry, and Deaconesses--the latter 3 categories being laity). The rules were that all seminarians were required to enroll, unless they had alternate coverage through family or employment. It was to be self-supporting from the premiums seminarians paid. The exceptions weren't monitored by the seminaries very closely, for actual enrollment was lower than anticipated and, due to two mental health claims, the plan was bankrupted within a couple of years.

So the ELCA's Division for Ministry and Board of Pensions (which maintains the ELCA's health plans) went back to the drawing board and created a new plan, one chief difference being that if a seminarian had other medical coverage, s/he had to pay a waiver fee. And then they went on the road to all 8 seminaries for us to vote on whether to accept this plan or to be on our own. Meanwhile, the Graduate Theological Union (of which PLTS is a constituent) had worked out an arrangement that its students would be included in the much better, and much less expensive, health plan for University of California graduate students, and that opportunity was being extended to the students of its constituent schools.

For us at PLTS, it was a no brainer--the GTU/Cal plan was by far the better one. But the folks from Higgins Road pulled out all the stops to encourage us to vote for the ELCA's plan. And in Berkeley, we asked 2 key questions: 1) Why must the seminarian plan be separate from the main ELCA plan and 2) Why should we vote for the ELCA plan?

The first question was answered, "Because it has to be separate." The second was answered,

"For the unity of the church."

Appalled, I turned to my classmate next to me and whispered, "I thought unity of the Church had something to do with a common theology." Nothing about whether the plan was a good one. Nothing about the health needs of seminarians or rostered leaders. Nothing about good stewardship. Here we were, candidates for the ministry in a church that before its inception was divided over such matters as the ministry, biblical interpretation, and a social/political emphasis by the highest levels, and that as soon as it was born was engulfed in a dispute over homosexualty. It was right then that I realized that the heart of our divisions in the ELCA was a very basic disagreement on the nature of the church itself. And we may not be able to agree on any of those things, I disgustedly mused, but the medical and pension plan can keep us together. (Alas, my diagnosis of the ELCA hasn't changed a bit over the years--time and time again, I speak my variation on then-Governor Clinton's chief weapon against the first President Bush: "It's the ecclesiology, stupid.")

All this came to mind this afternoon as I sat near the back of the room during this afternoon's session of the Diocese of Quincy's Annual Synod (what we'd call a convention or assembly). Quincy is one of the Dioceses that is fundamentally opposed to the direction the Episcopal Church (now abbreviated TEC) has been going and the general tenor (though there are a few exceptions) has been that they can't get out fast enough. Since the General Convention accepted Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire, most of the parishes have described themselves as "Anglican," rather than "Episcopal." And last year, the Synod began taking a series of steps to disassociate the Diocese from TEC while more strongly emphasizing its tie to the Archbishop of Canterbury and the "Global South" Anglicans. Recent news reports have included Quincy as among those receiving "threats" of lawsuits by TEC to keep the property of those determined to leave.

And during the financial report, the chair of the Finance Committee delivered news he clearly didn't want to. If they leave, liability insurance for congregations and their officials, which is done throught a trust of TEC, will not be able to be renewed at the end of that policy's year (next summer), and it has proved much harder than anticipated to get such coverage. Worse, the medical plan for priests will only last until the end of the month they disassociate from TEC. And that has proved even harder than liability insurance to find a suitable, affordable replacement.

Where's the unity of the Episcopal Church? You guessed it. Nothing to do with common theology, worship, understandings of the Word of God. It's insurance and pensions.

Kyrie eleison. Lord, have mercy.


Steven Craig Miller said...

As much as we would like our churches to focus on theology, worship, and preaching the Gospel though the Word, yet someone has to pay the bills. And in our society, medical health coverage is no small matter. And when churches fight, they don’t just fight with biblical interpretations & theological hermeneutics, but also with property rights and medical heath plans.

Pastor Zip said...

Oh, I have no real problem at all with medical coverage being an important factor. I think Quincy's leadership is being wise in getting that sorted out before putting the Diocese on an irrevocable course out of TEC.

But if that is what is holding churches like the ELCA or TEC together as all sorts of conflicting teachings about very basic matters of faith are being promoted -- and that seems to be the state of our churches -- something has gone terribly wrong.

At least in a church whose distinctive quality is its theology -- once a clear province of Lutheranism.