Monday, March 02, 2009

Sunday Reflections for March 1, 2009: "Time for ELCA to find its theological backbone"

Not surprisingly, the ELCA sexuality task force’s recommendations for dealing with gay clergy got a cold reception last week from church conservatives. (For more background, see the Reflections column of February 15.) Two leading advocacy groups announced their intentions to work to defeat the proposals at the August churchwide assembly meeting in Minneapolis. Groups that support removing restrictions on gay clergy voiced lukewarm support.

The task force’s proposal is a convoluted attempt to find a solution which, while no one will be enthusiastic about it, most can at least tolerate. It remains to be seen if they’ve succeeded. In brief, they are recommending what has come to be called “the local option.” Basically this assumes that since the church is so divided on the question, individual congregations, synods and bishops must be allowed to make their own decisions on the matter.

At first glance, this can appear to be a reasonable compromise. But on something as fundamental as ordaining and calling pastors, such a policy could lead to many practical problems and would undermine the church’s sense of unity and common purpose. The Episcopal Church has tried this approach with mixed results. A number of parishes and even a few dioceses have left the denomination. If, as expected, the assembly in August approves removing restrictions on gay clergy in some form, the ELCA’s experience will probably be similar.

The task force’s twelve-page introduction to its resolutions shows the wrestling that obviously went on within the group as it tried to come up with a proposal. They explicitly state that their proposed resolution was supported by a majority of the task force but was not unanimous.

There is a revealing statement in the task force’s document about the larger problem they struggled with in preparing their report:

Therefore, the task force believes this church must seek a common way to live and serve in the midst of disagreements. The areas of disagreement include: 1) the understanding of the nature of sin, the means of determining what behavior is sinful, and the ways in which this church can best address the problem of sin; 2) the interpretation of the Bible, including not only the contemporary meaning of particular passages, but also how the Bible guides our lives; 3) the determination of what will be best for people who have a definite orientation toward others of the same gender; 4) whether and how social and biological sciences inform us in matters of moral judgment; 5) the best way to serve the mission of God through this church; and 6) the level of disagreement the ELCA can bear.

The task force should be commended for its candor. If true, however, this assessment is a devastating critique of the state of the ELCA. Some of the issues they have identified (especially 1 & 2) are so fundamental as to question how it can function as a church. And maybe that is exactly the point. If the ELCA is divided on such basic questions, what is holding it together, and why?
The ELCA is not a fundamentalist denomination but it does have some very conservative members. To avoid offending them, the church has often avoided challenging issues and subjects.

In my first congregation we had a seminary professor come and lead an adult class on Genesis. At the second or third session one member went ballistic over the professor saying that the Genesis creation stories shouldn’t be taken literally. He quit the class and eventually the congregation to join a Bible church.

The incident was certainly unpleasant for everyone else (the man was nearly screaming at one point) but they all continued on and appreciated the professor’s presentation. To avoid offending this one person, should the class not have been offered? While peace and harmony are certainly important they can’t come at the price of being honest about our identity, or of having any identity at all.

A major cause of the impasse on this and other issues has been a failure of church leadership. For over a half-century there has been a basic consensus within moderate ecumenical churches, like the ELCA, on how to read and interpret the Bible within the context of the modern world. The colleges and seminaries of these churches have taught the historical limitations of the Bible and given their students the tools to interpret it in the very different world that we live in today.

In their training, every pastor learns and struggles with the fact that one can’t simply say, “The Bible says x, y or z” on some topic and let it go at that. Everything the Bible says is historically conditioned and has to be interpreted and evaluated. Thus slavery, an institution taken for granted and even supported in the Bible, was later judged immoral by the church. Similarly churches rejected the ancient tradition of an all male clergy and decided there was no justifiable reason to exclude women.

Nonetheless, in their preaching and teaching, pastors often hesitate to talk about the Bible in the ways they themselves were taught. Primarily this is out of a fear of upsetting “the people in the pews” with ideas that challenge the understanding of the Bible that they probably got in Sunday school. Bishops counsel young pastors to be careful using their seminary education in their congregations. Educational materials for children and adults tip-toe carefully in talking about the Bible in any way that implies it isn’t all literally true.

As my Genesis class demonstrated, some people can get very upset by looking at the Bible in a more critical way. Fears of such incidents have led countless churches and pastors to avoid such approaches altogether. As a result, church members are unequipped to use the Bible in dealing with the difficult and complicated challenges of modern life. They often feel like bewildered bystanders to controversies like the evolution vs. creationism debate. And it should come as no surprise that within the church issues like homosexuality become hopelessly tangled conundrums.

We are now harvesting the fruit of decades of theological cowardice. In chasing after mythical goals of “Lutheran unity” and church harmony we dropped the far more important values of relevance, honesty and integrity. The challenge now is for church leaders to find the courage to say what they actually believe and teach what they know to be true.

I believe the ELCA can and will come to an honest and positive resolution to this issue. Doing so will likely antagonize some members and congregations and some may choose to leave the denomination. Obviously, this would not be the objective. It may, however, be the inevitable cost for creating a clearer sense of purpose and identity. In the end, making a difficult decision, believing it was right, and accepting its cost, will strengthen the ELCA and create a stronger commitment to its mission and ministry.

1 comment:

Laura H-S said...

I am a seminary student in the ELCA and the decisions by the task force haven't left anyone I know really happy. Some members of the Reconciling in Christ congregation I serve this year are unhappy with the tenuous nature of the decision. They want an all-out statement that GLBT people are welcomed into all aspects of ministry, including ordination. The conservatives see the ELCA going to hell in a handbasket.

Personally, I think this social statement will be adequate for the moment, when we are in the midst of change. I think the clarification of the ELCA's stance on sexuality will follow in the not-too-distant future, and I think it will be inclusive of all people, including GLBT individuals. But it is going to take the work of leaders who are willing to address theological issues as well as ministries.

Where are the sermons about our radically inclusive understanding of the gospel--that Jesus died for all people? Where is our understanding of sin? I preached a few weeks ago, and afterward had a conversation with someone who left their church over a lesbian pastor. I was told, "I don't want to hear the word of God from a sinful person." I pointed out she heard it from a sinful person that day--me! How can we forget people are a mix of saint and sinner? Perhaps because we focus too much on being a "good person", or we talk about living a generally good life and end up forgetting our own Lutheran theology.

I studied the Book of Concord last year. I was amazed at how supportive many statements were about modern issues of inclusion. I ended up doing a paper on how the reformers made statements that would support the creation of Holy Union ceremonies for gay and lesbian people. Our roots are strong and deep. There is a foundation there if we pastors (and future pastors) have enough courage to seek them and speak to them.