Tuesday, August 04, 2009

"Perhaps the Church has erred..."

Last Thursday morning over at the pan-Lutheran ALPB Forum Online, in a discussion following a letter from Bishop Nicholas Tai of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Hong Kong to ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson and ELCA "Colleagues in ministry" concerning the sexuality proposals before the ELCA Churchwide Assembly, the well-known (in American Lutheran circles) retired pastor-journalist Charles Austin asked,
Does anyone entertain the thought that the Church may have erred? That even if one argues for an unbroken viewpoint (difficult to do, given some blank spots in human history), might it be that this viewpoint was wrong?
That afternoon I replied:
Yes, I have entertained the thought that the Church may have erred. After all, as Lutherans we hold as a matter of confession that Councils of the Church can err, so it isn't much of a stretch to suggest that an issue that has not been directly addressed by a Council of the Church could still be unclear for Christians.

Whether the Church could have erred and whether the Church is erring in declaring homosexual relationships, regardless of their qualities, as being contrary to God's will is another matter still. Here is where I am relying on 2 independent sorts of examinations:

1) My own, which started long before I was willing to become a seminarian because the particulars of the issue were very personal. I continued the examination while a seminarian at institutions whose teachers were frequently on record as teaching that the Church had erred, but found their arguments wanting. Occasionally creative. Alas, sometimes a bit too creative with verifiable history. None came close to convincing me -- as one who very much wanted to be convinced. My own examination continued in concert with...

2) The ELCA's examinations, predominantly through the sexuality studies leading up to the infamous First Draft of 1993 and the sexuality studies that have led to proposals for the CWA less than 4 weeks from now. Examinations that have had as available resources every single one of the theological minds of the ELCA and beyond.

Now, I will admit here that even before the charge of the 2001 CWA, I had been convinced by my own examination, by the theological conversations (formal and informal) while in seminary, and by the conversations that ensued through the debates within the ELCA, ECUSA, etc. of the 1990s that there was indeed no sustainable argument for changing the Church's teaching that all homosexual relationships are, regardless of other qualities, ipso facto sinful. This theological judgment was contrary to my desires, but my theological/pastoral conscience is bound to something other than my desires.

Nevertheless, I had hopes that, since every possible theological resource would be available to the ELCA Task Force, if anyone could offer such a sustainable argument, they would. I participated in all the studies. I read through all the official materials. I participated in many discussions.

And in the end, they offered no argument at all. They have given us assertions that cover the "sides" in the debate over the place of homosexuality in the Church, but there is no argument made for changing the Church's teaching on homosexuality anywhere to be found in the Report and Recommendations or the proposed Sexuality Statement.

In the end of nearly 8 years of work, given the chance to show that the Church's teaching has been wrong, having the best and brightest minds of the ELCA at their disposal, they did not even try.

And, I will note, in all the on-line discussions I've been in with you over 16 years, neither have you. It is always, "Some people believe...."

Now there may be some churches where such statements hold theological weight. If the ELCA is one of them, it has betrayed our Confession of Faith.

I'm not from Missouri, Charles. Nevertheless, show me, and I'll gladly change my mind. Otherwise, my conscience is bound by the Word of God, not my own desires. Here I stand. Until convinced otherwise by the Word and reason, I can do no other.

Pax et bonum, Steven+
Late that evening, another ALPB Forum Online participant (from the Missouri Synod) in expressing his thanks for what I had written pointed out "that it took Charles to bring that out." I disagreed Friday afternoon:
I do want to observe that what I wrote above was nothing that I haven't written already -- here or elsewhere -- or that I've not stood up and spoken out loud, several times over the last months.
[Most recently just a few weeks ago from the floor of our Synod Assembly. It is hard to say anything well in the 2 minutes we are allowed to speak, but a least a couple of people got my point.]
This is not even the first time that Charles (or Brian S., or other persons noted for "making people think through the pastoral consequences of the positions we hold") has drawn this out of me. Or out of others who have said similar things. Please also notice the response from those who, uh, provoke such testimony. Nothing. Silence.

And yet it also takes no prophet inspired by any sort of spirit, Holy or otherwise, to predict that, soon, Charles, Brian, and/or some other advocate of sexual revisionism will once again smugly comment as if I (or some other "sexual traditionalist" for whom this particular discussion is deeply personal) had never said a thing, as if we had hidden in a closet throughout the last 2 decades. Because they've all done it, repeatedly, since they adopted their current perspective.

It's part of why I've found the very title of the proposed Social Statement, Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust, so hypocritical before I'd finished its second page.
[Note: see my "...Gift and Trust" blog entry from last April.]

And sure enough, by Saturday evening such a smug comment was posted.

5 comments:

Clarke said...

This has been in regular discussion in my congregation in Seattle. At our synod assemblies, we have regularly asked for anyone to show us anything in Scripture, in The Word, that could allow us to to be moved to support the revisionism on sexuality the seems so desperately desired by the ELCA hierarchy. Some of us desperately desire it! But it is the easy way out. The worst is when homosexuals attack you by claiming you are attacking them personally for not embracing the secularism the church is attempting to embrace, without so much as a good reasoned argument, never mind an argument based on The Word. The amount of time and other resources the ELCA is continuing to waste on this issue is disheartening. To hear a voice of reason is refreshing. Thank you!
Clarke O'Reilly, Seattle

Steve Martin said...

Thank you, Pastor!

You did a terrific job in your writing.

The ELCA is definitely going where it ought not go.

christian scharen said...

Dear Pr. Tibbets,
I was in seminary with you, a few years behind. It frustrates me that you are willing to say here that those of us who support change have "offered no argument at all. They have given us assertions that cover the "sides" in the debate over the place of homosexuality in the Church, but there is no argument made for changing the Church's teaching on homosexuality anywhere to be found in the Report and Recommendations or the proposed Sexuality Statement.

In the end of nearly 8 years of work, given the chance to show that the Church's teaching has been wrong, having the best and brightest minds of the ELCA at their disposal, they did not even try."

I have, since my MA thesis in Berkeley, tried my hardest to make such arguments. I wonder if your rejection has fully surrendered to the arguments that you disagree with. I have done so with Dr. Paul Hinlicky's arguements, as well as some of Dr. Bob Benne's arguments. I've learned more from them that most of my 'progressive' colleauges, and that conversation has, I would argue, forced us all to be more charitable and more clear both in our agreement and our disagreement.
Peace to you,
Chris Scharen

Pastor Zip said...

Christian, I do remember you from PLTS and it has not surprised me at all to see your name attached to serious theological work. I consider it an honor that you consider my writing worth responding to.

I must confess that I have not read your book, Married in the Sight of God. Perhaps you have indeed made a convincing case for changing the Church's teaching on marriage and sexuality.

I have read the ELCA's Social Statement and the (now-adopted) ministry recommendations. Perhaps you can show me where either makes the case for this new teaching.

Pax, Steven+

angel said...

i am especially fond of laynie browne’s take in her 2007 book daily sonnets…lovely gentle surprising fun familial. she takes after bernadette mayer…
have you done a sonnet prompt for read/write/poem yet?
online informal