Monday, August 10, 2009

ELCA circular firing squad assembling in Minneapolis

The ELCA Churchwide Assembly (aka convention) begins in a week and the battle lines are drawn. It seems likely that after years of turmoil and handwringing, this assembly will vote to allow non-celibate gay clergy. This (among other things) is the recommendation of its appointed sexuality task force.

There is a very vocal opposition to such action. A recent summary statement of this viewpoint is an open letter from an organization called CORE to the assembly delegates. You can
read it here. Prominent among those signing this letter are many of the old guard of non-Missouri Synod American Lutheranism. Thus, a lot of these (mostly) men are designated "retired" or "emeritus." They aren't very happy with what the "young-uns" are doing with their church.

A notable exception, however, is the retired first Presiding Bishop of the ELCA, Herbert Chilstrom. He has been a longtime supporter of gays in all parts of church life. Not surprisingly, then, Chilstrom has written a strong and eloquent rebuttal to the CORE letter, which can be
found here. Also designated an open letter, he nonetheless has specifically addressed it to several colleagues and friends which apparently he is especially disappointed to see as supporters of CORE's position.

In response to Chilstrom comes retired LSTC theology professor, Carl Braaten, with
his own letter and with all guns blazing. Carl was my systematics professor in seminary. No one would characterize him as the warm and fuzzy type, yet he has an excellent mind and I was challenged by and learned a lot from him. I have been disappointed by his drift into the ELCA's reactionary camp, pining for a return to some idealized, orthodox golden past. But nostalgia is what Lutherans sometimes seem to do best.

As Braaten himself writes, he and Chistrom couldn't be further apart:

An outside critic reading what you wrote and what I am writing in this Open Letter might have a hard time believing that we belong to same church and affirm the same teachings of the Christian faith.

If anyone wonders why the ELCA is on the verge of some kind of breakup, just read these three statements.

Personally, while I am sure some congregations and clergy will leave the ELCA after this assembly, I doubt the numbers will be large--perhaps 10 percent. Just as after the Missouri Syond brouhaha in the 1970s, inertia if nothing else will keep most people in place where they are. Because of the ELCA's polity, no congregation can be forced to take a pastor they don't want. This is certainly what ameliorated any unease that existed after the ordination of women was approved forty years ago. The simple reality is that after all the shouting is over and the janitors have swept up the assembly hall, everyone will return to church the next Sunday and nothing will look any different. Before you know it people will be wondering: What was all the excitement about?


Jan Erickson said...

Thanks for this, Doug. I don't get Carl, either. He was my teacher as well and some of his rather universalist-leaning theology was pretty out there for some of his colleagues (and ours) then. What is it that prompts some to -- dare I say it -- revert?

Are you going? It's going to be watch and wait from home for me. And pray.

Doug said...

You're welcome Jan. Not to psychologize too much, but I think Carl has been one who liked to go ying when the crowd was going yang. I remember from my sem days his disdain for the high liturgy folks, including and especially Frank Senn. Ironically they are now on the same team.

He seems to like the role of fighting against the fads of the elites, i.e. if Higgins Rd likes it, there must be something wrong. I don't know for sure but given his parents' missionary background I'm guessing there is more than a little Haugeanism in his blood. Gotta champion the common folk and all that. Course he's about as far from common folk as you get but these things are always full of contradictions.

And no I won't be going to the big shindig either. I too will watch from afar.

Ron Amundson said...

Having been on a reading frenzy of Carl's books as of the last 6 months, I see this "reversion" thing too, even as a layman far removed from him. Its a paradox for sure, but when Doug mentioned the non-Missourian Lutheran thing, plus Carl's statements as concerns he and Herbs path, its almost like a replay of the late 1800's all over again. Perhaps its part of the process that keeps us honest and from straying off the path? Either way, thank you for the fascinating background.

Peter/Lenore said...

Doug: This post caught my eye because I also was a student of Carl Braaten. I have fond memories of struggling with Tillich under Carl, not to mention ping pong and pool, other things at which Braaten also excelled.

So when I googled CORE at the time of the circular firing squad, I was rather shocked to see his name pop up. I do sort of agree with his comment that liberal churches in general are floundering, at least in their institutional expressions. It is his solution to the problem that is hard for me to believe.

I clearly remember him saying in class one day, that Lutheranism was not a religion, but rather a movement, something I have repeated often over the years. It is the reason I came to understand that Christianity itself was first a movement.

So for me, systematic theology is really about understanding the driving force of the original movement, in order to reinterpret it for each contemporary situation.

Obviously we can learn from what 'moved' people in the 1st century, and during the Reformation. But if that isn't relevant to what is moving people today it has no point. And Carl is the one who taught me that.

PS: LSTC only had a pool table, while Concordia Springfield, where I attended my first year in seminary, had two billard tables. I am glad I made the move, though something inside me still feels that billards is a more pure form of the game.