Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Initial Thoughts: ELCA "Ministry Policies" Proposal

Having read the Report and Recommendation on Ministry Policies last Wednesday evening, I first want to commend the Task Force for the way they make their four recommendations
1) RESOLVED, that the ELCA commit itself to finding ways to allow congregations and synods that choose to do so to recognize, support, and hold publicly accountable life-long, monogamous, same-gender relationships.

2) RESOLVED, that the ELCA commit itself to finding a way for people in such publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships to serve as rostered leaders of this church.

3) RESOLVED, that in the implementation of these resolutions, the ELCA commits itself to bear one another’s burdens, love the neighbor, and respect the bound consciences of all.

4)... RESOLVED, that this church, because of its commitment to respect the bound consciences of all, declares its intent to incorporate structured flexibility in decision-making into its policies and procedures so that synods, bishops, congregations, candidacy committees, and others involved in the candidacy process and in the process of extending calls will be free to act according to their convictions regarding both the approving or disapproving in candidacy and the extending or not extending of a call to rostered service of a person who is otherwise qualified and who is living or contemplates living in a publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationship; and be it further
RESOLVED, that the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America make provision in its policies to eliminate the prohibition of rostered service by members who are in publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships;...
The recommendation is that #1 is presented, if it passes then #2 is presented, if it passes #3 is presented, and only if it passes is the final recommendation -- to allow for those in publicly-accountable, committed, same-sex relationships to serve in ELCA ministry -- presented for approval. They very easily could have skipped the first three, leaving any implications of accepting the fourth unsaid. They chose not to hide some very important implications of their final recommendation, but rather to make them conditions for it. I appreciate the honesty and wisdom of that choice.

I was disappointed, but not terribly surprised, that in describing the two basic, opposing perspectives on continuing or changing "the current policy of prohibition regarding lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships," they appear to offer no sense of judgment between the two. They are put out as two equal, but opposing perspectives -- whether that judgment be theological, moral, exegetical, or whatever.

There is, though, one particularly sly indication (beyond the recommendation itself) that the Task Force has concluded that the "acceptance" perspective is ultimately the superior -- that being the use of the word "celibacy," rather than "chastity," in describing what reasserters of the Faith say the Faith asks of homosexual Christians, especially those who are (or would be) ELCA pastors and rostered lay leaders. And as long as one perspective's mischaracterizations are used as basic definitions, the debate itself is false. (See my friend Pr. Dick Johnson's July 2004 Forum Letter article, "Controlling Chastity.") But that seems to be where we are.

As for the recommendations themselves, unless there is something new in Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust (confession: I've not read through it yet), the Task Force has still failed after 7 years of work to offer a theological case for altering the ancient teaching of the Church in order to grant acceptance of publicly accountable life-long, monogamous, same-sex relationships.

Thus, to approve that first resolution would be an act of, at the very least, irresponsibility by the Churchwide Assembly -- after all, the task force has had at its disposal every resource of the ELCA over 7 years to find ways to allow them. Frankly, when this process was re-started 7 years ago, I had hoped that they may find ways -- as I had not found any through all the other studies of the last quarter-century, even though it certainly would have made my life much easier as both a pastor and a Christian.

Yet, that said, for me as an ELCA pastor, it is the third recommendation, "to bear one another's burdens, love the neighbor, and respect the bound consciences of all," that is the most unworkable. Frankly, the 2009 ELCA Churchwide Assembly could accept it only by deceiving itself and the rest of the church.

For, as I told Zion's Congregation Council last Thursday evening,
I do not see how it is possible for the ELCA to actually "respect the bound consciences" of those of us unable to support ministers in committed same-sex relationships.
Granted, the formation of the ELCA itself gravely wounded the ministerium. We have seen the ill-effects of that throughout the 21 years of the ELCA being the church we identify with. Yet even now, my default answer for parishioners who visit or move to other cities is, "Go to an ELCA congregation." Yes, there have been particular exceptions to that -- Ebenezer Lutheran Church in San Francisco might be interesting to tour, but that's not Christian worship; congregations (such as the one I in which I was baptized, confirmed, and ordained within) that purport to "marry" homosexual couples, etc.

But my conscience, bound by Scripture and the Faith as taught in the ELCA and her predecessors, cannot recognize those in publicly accountable same-sex relationships as ministers with whom I am in fellowship. Unlike some ELCA pastors, I can imagine being satisfied with just my own Synod -- after all, while Lutherans ordain into the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church, we are also on the roll of a Synod and/or Ministerium -- and prior to the ELCA such rolls were maintained by the individual synods, not the national church body. Pastors in publicly-accountable gay relationships will not be acceptable to the congregations of the synod in which I serve.

But that would mean a different understanding of the roll/roster of pastors than has been the ELCA's. The only way resolution 3 works is if the ELCA becomes more like the United Church of Christ and its much more individualistic understanding of the church, congregations, clergy, etc. And of all that Lutherans have worked towards since the repudiation of Schmuckerism (see the important, indispensible, and -- alas! -- out-of-print Lutherans in Crisis: The Question of Identity in the American Republic by David A. Gustafson for the full story), the ELCA will have been a terrible detour to Muhlenberg's dream (and the raison d'être for the ELCA's formation) of one Lutheran church in America.

The preceding is based on comments I posted earlier today on ALPB Forum Online.

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