Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Waking from the ELCA dream of church unity

ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson has been quoted saying that, whatever happens at this week’s Minneapolis assembly, it will not be allowed to divide the church.

To which I say (assuming for argument’s sake he actually has any influence in the matter): Why not?

Most of the hand-wringing that has gone on over this issue at ELCA headquarters in Chicago, as well as in many individual synod offices, has not been over the merits of the gay clergy question. Rather, the anxiety has been over, if and when this is approved, how many congregations would bolt the denomination. Rarely, if ever, have the denizens of the Higgins Road tower been heard to say, “This isn’t right” (which would be awkward given the number of gays, lay and clergy, who work there). Rather the refrain has been “We’re not ready for this.” Well, ready or not, it’s about to happen and the fallout is already occurring.

Reading the writing on the wall, the ELCA megachurch Community Church of Joy in Glendale, AZ voted in June to leave the ELCA. Senior Pastor Walt Kallestad declared the vote to be “a victory for the ultimate authority of God's Word” which was “enthusiastically and overwhelmingly supported by God's people who participated in our congregational gathering.” (Those last qualifying words are not without significance. The vote was 174-11, while the church claims a membership of over 5,000 and average worship attendance of over 2,000. I guess the quorum requirement is set pretty low. In any case, the enthusiasm, let alone the opinion, of most CCOJ-ers would seem to be not entirely clear.)

As I wrote earlier, there can be little doubt more departures will follow. There has actually been a slow trickle of congregations out of the ELCA almost since its inception over twenty years ago. The vast majority of these have been churches discontented with the ELCA’s perceived liberalism (a word meaning different things to different people). This rate of defection will almost certainly jump rather dramatically for the next year or so. But again, as I wrote before, it is not at all clear that the total numbers will be very large as a proportion of the ELCA. Many, I suspect, will grumble yet stay put.

Echoing Bishop Hanson, there will be many impassioned pleas for church unity this week—some pro forma and some sincere. While politeness prevents it from being said aloud, my sentiment and I know that of some number of others will be, “Go in peace.” If the ELCA is ever to get a coherent sense of identity, it needs to bite the bullet and take stands that will alienate some of it members.

The rationale for establishing the ELCA was never very clear and there were those, like ALC Presiding Bishop David Preus, who said so at the time. It’s hard not to conclude that “bigger is better” thinking really did carry the day. It happened, to some extent, because no one made a convincing argument why it shouldn’t. The energy for the merger came primarily from a romantic hope for “Lutheran unity”—despite the fact that everyone knew there was no prospect of including American Lutheranism’s second largest branch, the Missouri Synod.

The romanticism extended primarily to the participating churches, however. While rarely expressed in public, conversations before and after merger meetings in hallways and bars often turned to concern over differences between the merging groups. To a large degree, ALC and LCA congregations were encouraged to see what they wanted to see in the upcoming merger. Even then, negotiations over structural issues became testy as the assumptions of the more centralized, clergy-oriented LCA collided with the ALC’s lay and congregation-centered ethos. It was easier to finesse doctrinal issues and faith statements with the inherent vagueness and multiple meanings of theological language.

Differences that were smoothed over in enthusiasm for the merger have plagued the ELCA ever since. The worst consequence has been the inability to establish any clear direction or purpose. Some have blamed this on money woes, which have certainly been real and substantial. A much more significant impediment, however, has been the continuing need to find consensus among competing groups and conflicting agendas. The compromises that have resulted have been sufficient to get votes in committees and at assemblies but have rarely generated much enthusiasm in the church-at-large.

Adopting the sexuality proposals will not suddenly give the ELCA a clear identity or mission. (The task force recommendations themselves are flawed products of this compromise spirit and are going to need reworking in the near future.) The experience of taking a stand, however, knowing it will alienate some of its membership, can only be a healthy step in the ELCA’s delayed maturing process. At some point the church has to emulate its founder and say, “Here I stand,” knowing it then also says, “And yes I recognize that you are standing over there, someplace else.”

It was the expressed hope of the sexuality task force (and to some degree its unspoken assignment) that it would arrive at proposals which everyone might not like but everyone could live with. This has been the ELCA’s modes operandi. This time it isn’t going to work—not because of any ineptitude on the part of the committee but because (finally) there came an issue for which there simply is no compromise. While it may not think so now, eventually the ELCA needs to thank those who have patiently yet persistently pushed this issue. In doing so they have also pushed the ELCA to finally step forward in a meaningful way and say, “This is who we are.” Thanks be to God.

1 comment:

W. Swanson said...

As usual, so well-said, Doug: from exposing CCOJ's hideous voting member turn-out to your analysis of pre- and post-merger woes to an indication of what the future holds. Thank you.