Monday, August 31, 2009

Sex, singles and the ELCA (Sunday Reflections for August 30, 2009)

As the dust begins to settle from the churchwide assembly (CWA) in Minneapolis, questions are arising as to what its actions will really mean in practice. It could be that things now get rather complicated—but then again, maybe not.

What was generally left unsaid—at least in public—is that what the CWA really did was to give official recognition to a situation that already existed—for quite awhile in some cases. In various regions of the country, in urban areas generally, and in specialized ministries like chaplaincies and campus ministry, gay pastors have been serving with varying degrees of recognition. Here in the Metro Chicago Synod, in fact, the synod assembly had voted several years ago to direct the bishop and staff to basically ignore the ELCA’s policy on gay clergy.

This CWA said we are now going to publicly recognize we have differences of opinion and practice on this and we’re just going to live with that for awhile. Therefore,it’s okay for synods and congregations to make their own decisions. So it could be that not much will really change, except that people will feel free to be a little more honest with one another and breathe a little easier. In the church, where we say that the gospel sets us free, that would seem to be a good thing.

The way in which the ELCA has gone about this, however, had raised some other, perhaps unexpected, questions. The sexuality task force recommendations which were adopted at the CWA were a bit convoluted, requiring four separate resolutions. One of the main goals was, in essence, to hold gay clergy to the same standards as their straight counterparts. But this took the ELCA further down a relatively new road, that of specifying the moral expectations of its pastors.

In the past, clergy misconduct was handled on a case-by-case basis by the local bishop (or whatever the equivalent was at the time) and was largely left up to his (no “hers” back then) discretion. After the ELCA was formed, the new Council of Bishops adopted a statement of “Visions and Expectations” for clergy and required pastors to state in writing that they were in compliance with them whenever they looked for a new call.

While there were a variety of topics covered, it was clear the main interest was sex. What was new was an explicit statement that sexual relations could only take place within marriage. Gay pastors officially needed to be celibate but so did single straight clergy. Of course, all this was on an honor system. The synods did not implement any kind of clergy sex investigation unit. When gross violations became public, however, synods now had explicit grounds for removing a pastor from a congregation or from the ministerial rolls altogether.

The resolutions passed by this past assembly allow congregations to call pastors who are in "publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships." By one count, that lengthy phrase is used a dozen times. The question that almost immediately comes to mind is: What about pastors, gay or straight, who are not in "publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous” relationships? And that question brings up the whole tangled, multi-faceted issue of sex and single people generally.

As I wrote at the time it came out last spring, the new sexuality social statement (also adopted at this assembly) identifies many of the dimensions of this question but offers little guidance on them. Knowing that the last attempt at such a statement crashed and burned nearly twenty years ago, in part over just such questions, this task force was reluctant to be bold or creative.

The social statement says repeatedly that the church still believes marriage is the best and only sanctioned setting for sexual relations. It identifies some of the countless situations modern people find themselves in where sex occurs outside of marriage, expresses some understanding of them, but the task force couldn’t or wouldn’t take the next step of providing guidance for people is such situations.

For a whole host of reasons, the portion of the adult population that is single is now the highest on record. This is true across age groups and regions of the country, and there is no indication this will change anytime soon. Certainly a substantial number of these people are having sex. Does the church really have nothing to say to them other than “get married”?

Once again fear of the real world is leaving the church behind the cultural curve. Human relations change and will continue to do so. Polygamy is practised and accepted in the Old Testament, for example, yet over time was dropped and eventually forbidden. Life-long marriage in the ancient world meant something far different than it does now with life-expectancy more than doubled, formal education lasting twenty or more years, gender equality, effective contraception, and many other changes that would make modern life almost unrecognizable to ancient people.

The gospels include numerous stories of Jesus reaching across and breaking down cultural boundaries, often shocking both his opponents and his own disciples. They demonstrate an understanding of how often rules and standards assumed to be forever are actually very tentative and very human, often serving to aid one group at the expense of another. Unless it can rediscover this same spirit, understanding, freedom and compassion, the church will have no reason to wonder why fewer and fewer people make it a part of their lives. It will be for the simple reason that the church stopped being interested in their lives.

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