24 August 2009

Reflections on the 2009 ELCA Churchwide Assembly

"While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, ‘Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’ So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days." Acts 10

It's been one heckuva week for my church.

On Friday, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America voted in assembly to remove the ban on non-celibate gay and lesbian clergy and rostered lay ministers. Quite the step, and while I was pretty sure it was going to be taken, I was still amazed at the prospect once it happened.

I still don't really know what to think or say. On the one hand, I'm overjoyed that many friends in whom I've seen great gifts for ministry might now be able to take up the burden and blessing of official, recognized ministry under the auspices of the ELCA. On the other hand, it wasn't so long ago that I regretfully stood against this very change, and many of my friends still do, knowing full well that it is a painful stance, but feeling captive to their interpretation of scripture and bound in conscience to remain faithful to what they read in God's word.

This is not to say that gay and lesbian ministers and those who support them are any less bound, or that they value scripture any less, or that all of us who feel the time for change has come are completely comfortable with the implications. There's a very real possibility that I may be asked to preside over a service of blessing for a same-sex couple in the near future, and I'm not sure I'm ready for that. Not to mention that liturgically we have scant resources for such a thing (and, no, this is not an invitation for everyone to post links to resources in my comments).

I've heard of one pastor who has already vowed that his church will withhold financial support from any synodical or churchwide units. While it's certainly that congregation's perogative to do so, I'm disappointed in the pastor's desire to punish and revenge himself on the church; far better to leave, in my opinion, than to stay in a denomination for the sake of retribution alone. But I'm only one pastor in this cavalcade of sinners we call the ELCA, and unlike most, my community is dependent upon grants from Synods and the Churchwide organization, so you might argue that my viewpoint is decidedly slanted anyway. Take my opinions on it for what you will.

My blogging friend Songbird posted about being on a "Discomfortable Edge." I think that's where I'm at right now. Thinking and feeling as though a course of action is right doesn't mean the road is smooth, and many of us make decisions at crossroads but watch with some degree of anxiety as the road not taken fades into the distance. Some of those most troubled by this decision are already planning to leave the ELCA, but some are wavering, and I would hope the ELCA can still be their church in spite of our disagreements. As our Presiding Bishop so beautifully said after the votes had been cast, "We meet one another finally -- not in our agreements or our disagreements -- but at the foot of the cross, where God is faithful, where Christ is present with us, and where, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we are one in Christ."

I do believe the Spirit is doing a new thing in our church, and I wonder if Peter and the disciples felt the same discomfort we do as the Spirit's outpouring was revealed in Caesarea all those generations ago. Just yesterday those of us who preach from the Revised Common Lectionary heard Peter's confession from John 6: "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life." Not a comfortable confession. Not a confession of dedication, but rather of desperation: a confession that acknowledges we cannot hope to know where the words of eternal life will take us next. But Peter and the disciples remained as faithful as they could be: this, I believe, is our calling today. God be with us all.

Grace & peace,

The artwork is "The Coming of the Holy Spirit" by artist He Qi.


  1. The ELCA has crossed the boundry of God's Law and has embarked on a journey of human pride that would rather be like by men that adhere to the clear teachings of Holy Scripture.

    How can the church say to anyone that is living together, having sex outside of marriage that it is wrong?

    Homosexuals ought be as welcome as any other sinner in the church, that is what we all are, sinners.

    But sin ought not be condined or advocated by the church.

    This will not bode well for the church, or the ELCA.

  2. Sorry for all the spelling errors!

    But I think you can get the picture.

  3. Scott, thank you. More than a few of us are there.

    I too am reminded of Peter and the debate over circumcision, Cornelius, Peter's his dream of "eating unclean animals," and the gentiles receiving the Holy Spirit.

    A Blog by another Lutheran Pastor has other perspectives: http://thistumbleweedlife.wordpress.com/

  4. Guess I look upon the approval as an "incomplete" We expect our clergy to be within a sanctioned relationship i.e. legal marriage. I feel they should have set the boundaries for gay clergy to be at least in "civil union" or married according to their state laws, if allowed.

  5. I have to laugh reading the comments. We studied the Scripture Daniel mentions at a youth minister's gathering in my synod this weekend. And it was during that study that we found out what happened on Friday (we all got to the camp before the vote, and there is pretty much no contact with the outside world up there). Interesting, no one had any comment on the vote - we just continued with the Bible study. In fact, no one I was with commented on the vote at all this weekend. I don't know if we all just needed time to process, or if we realized that the mission of the larger Church was about more than regulating who can love whom, and whether that love invalidates them from serving in a called ministry.

  6. I'd have to pick up on what dundeal wrote. Marriage should be a prerequisite here. If we recognize same-sex unions, the clergy issue disappears. I'm generally pretty skeptical when those in the civil debate say gay marriage/civil unions harm heterosexual marriage, but the clergy part of the agreement, i.e., inventing new categories of sanctioned non-marriage sexual relationships, cannot but be corrosive to marriage in the ELCA, and, as much as we have influence, elsewhere.

    I can only hope that the administrators charged with translating recommendations into policy see the redundancy and continue to require pastors in relationships to be married (even if marriages recognized only by the ELCA).

  7. To the relationships question: I believe the language of the actions by the Assembly states that non-celibate GLBT folks must be in monogamous, publicly accountable relationships. Vague, yes, but it has to be given that none of us knows what 'unions' will be around and working over the next 20 years.

  8. Thank you Scott. This sums up much of what I'm thinking and feeling too.

  9. I am very upset to hear about this. I am sad for my friend Scott who has to have this change forced upon him in the path he has chosen (like a change in contract from your credit card company) as I know these were not the morals and values that you grew up with; and I am sad for our country in that we support this type of behavior. Yes, homosexuality is a sin, and we can not shun these sinners, and must welcome them to our family in the church with open arms. But the key here is that they are sinners, and the fact that they do not chose to be reconciled for these sins means that they can not be forgiven. Yes, I am a sinner too, but just because I go to church on Sunday and feel good for one hour every week doesn't mean I will be forgiven and granted eternal life in heaven. To truely receive Gods grace and gift of forgiveness we must confess our sins, admit to out wrongdoings, and then make the promise to God that we will not do them again. To say ' oh, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to do that' and be forgiven, then to intentionally go out and do it again (for example, being married to a homosexual partner) then your sins are truely not forgiven. You must repent, and turn away from your evil ways to be forgiven. Now that this sort of behavior is being promoted as OK by any religious group, truely saddens my heart.

  10. resting... standing... feeling... quite on that edge too...

  11. "Publicly accountable" and "lifelong" are meaningless modifiers absent some kind of vow-based institution identical to marriage in terms of public responsibilities and expectations. Central to an understanding of marriage is exclusivity, both as a secure context for a sexual relationship (granting public and divine sanction) and a protection against infidelity, with both of these aims safeguarded by the community.

    I know gay couples who have had unions they called marriages blessed in ELCA churches, without any kind of guidance or support from the denomination, and whose marriages I expect may likely outlast the denomination. Meanwhile others who in good faith hold a perfectly coherent (scripturally and doctrinally) view of marriage which excludes homosexual relationships are being told that the best they can hope for is tolerance of their viewpoint by a majority that offers no more defense of the change than we think it's time, and you should respect our opinion.

    If the Spirit is doing a new thing, let it speak! I do not claim the gift of interpretation, but do not think it a stretch to say that the social statement and policy recommendations read more like a policy paper out of a polling company than tongues of the Spirit. At least one of the "teaching theologians" supporting the recommendations is drawing up a defense of the principles involved attempting to place it within the Lutheran tradition. I sincerely hope others follow her lead to actually support this change with teaching, but I'm not holding my breath, since this change has been years in coming, and that support has not come so far. If this is a natural progression, shouldn't we be able to show continuity with the tradition? If this is something entirely new, discontinuous with history, is a prophet or two too much to ask for?

    But these are the kind of problems caused by a church leadership that has abdicated any kind of teaching authority, be it scriptural, moral, or doctrinal, in favor of moving a political ball forward by means of a 66.67% vote. The new category of these non-marriage "relationships" in policy shows that what happened at the Assembly was not the proclamation of a new teaching, or a reassertion of old principles, but instead the application of political force.

    Sorry for the long comment, but I wanted to illustrate my position. I'm someone who has no plans to leave the ELCA, come what may. I'm not fully convinced, but am open to being persuaded by some kind of argument that's not just a mixture of anecdote and assertion. In that hope I'm very frustrated by those in favor of the changes treating it like a political crusade, with more and more politically sensitive documents produced for new Assemblies, leaving the intellectual ground undefended, which for opponents is enough reason to brand the movement indefensible. I find myself with nothing to say to them.

  12. What makes a marriage a marriage? Is it the approval of the State? Is it the little document with some signatures? Is it the church service? Is it the dress and the cake? Or is it the love shared between two people--love so strong that two vow to become one?

    If two gay men or two lesbian women find themselves in a situation where they are committed to each other and vowed to each other, then I consider them married. Simple as that.

    I am sad that, despite the Presideng Bishop's beautiful statement, the ELCA appears to be splitting. My prayers are with you, my reverend friend.

  13. Scott, thank you for the link. As I'm not a Lutheran, I'll stay out of that part of this conversation. But I want to share with you that as we hope and pray our new (but for now on hold) marriage equality law in Maine will survive a ballot referendum, I look ahead to doing my first same-sex marriage and don't know how I will do it either. It's a new thing, and I'm not just talking about liturgical resources. On the other hand, I remember standing at a wedding last fall thinking how sad I felt that the ability to make these kinds of promises legally belonged only to one category of people. That can't be right, I thought. That can't be right.

  14. I was at the Assembly. My journey is, I'd guess, similar to yours. Six years ago, I'd have voted against the change. Last week, I voted in favor of it. At the same time, I'm not sure how I'll react the first time I'm asked to preside over a ceremony that places people into a "publicly accountable lifelong, same-gender relationship."

    I'm in pain because the church I know and love...the church that taught my formerly Mormon self about Jesus' saving love...splitting. I've shed many tears over it, but I do believe that God is at work.

  15. "The social statement on human sexuality – the theological premise for the ministry proposal – is based on the doctrine of justification. This is a novel and dubious departure not only from historic Lutheran exegesis but from the Christian tradition as a whole, where human sexuality has been understood on the basis of Scripture (law, which applies to God’s people) and the orders of creation which applies to everyone. This also, it seems to me, reveals the utter absence of any meaningful doctrine of sin within the progressive elements of the ELCA and their gospel of radical inclusion."

    From my (ELCA) pastor, Mark Anderson.

    I thought it worthy for sharing.


  16. I think I am going to wait and see how the dust settles out, but any way you split it roughly 50% of the vote was split and of opposite position. This is a recipe for problems.

    Not to mention the issue that I am now faced with moving to a new job and looking for a new church, it is just one more thing that I need to look at is what will the local congregation position be. I agree with Steve's Comments, I welcome all sinners (including my self) to the church and (at least try) to love everyone, but not the sin.