Tuesday, September 01, 2009

ELCA and gay clergy: some of the nitty-gritty

As with any major change, the ELCA's decision to allow non-celibate gay clergy and the blessing of gay relationships has many loose ends. One that will start getting clearer fairly quickly is the question of what opponents of this change will do. One meeting of such people, organized by CORE, happens soon in Indianapolis. As I've said before, my guess is that most dismayed by this action will nonetheless stay put. I'm predicting a loss of at most 10% of ELCA congregations. The drop in financial contributions to the ELCA will probably be greater, however.

There are also a number of practical implications left unclear by the actions of the ELCA's churchwide assembly (CWA). In states with gay marriage, will ELCA clergy be allowed to participate in them? It's hard to see how they could be stopped. First, the notion of prohibiting pastors from carrying out some ministerial function is a foreign one in the ELCA. Second, the Lutheran marriage rite for the past thirty years makes it clear that the couple marry each other by their vows. The minister does not have the "power" to marry anyone. Rather, he or she presides at the service and is the principle witness to the couple's promises. Apart from that, however, marriage is getting to be a murkier act in general which the church is going to need to look at sooner or later.

The changes in clergy policies, which were developed by the sexuality task force and adopted by the CWA, unintentionally highlight an unclear distinction in the role of synods and congregations in the call process. In theory, congregations seeking a new pastor are given one or more candidates to consider who have been screened by their synod office. It is becoming more common, however, especially for larger congregations, to occasionally "go recruiting" for pastoral candidates, especially if they are dissatisfied with names that have been submitted previously. It's just assumed the bishop will approve a candidate found this way.

While the emphasis has been on congregations now having the freedom to choose a gay pastor if they want to, the language of the resolution also speaks somewhat ambiguously of synods and bishops also having this freedom. The implication is that a bishop or synod could also choose to NOT have gay clergy. Would such a decision be binding on all congregations in such a synod? It's not hard imaging a liberal congregation (say in a college town) in a conservative synod wanting to call a gay pastor when the synod or bishop is opposed.

How such a conflict is resolved is not clear. In practice, it may not even occur. In the ELCA, when push comes to shove, congregations usually get what they want. Still, while all the talk at the CWA of "freedom of conscience" sounded good, it's unclear what it actually means beyond the individual or congregational level. After women's ordination was approved, it was well known that many congregations would not call a female pastor and that some bishops were not inclined to recommend them. Still, there was no formal provision for denying a woman a call or denying a congregation the right to extend a woman a call. It's hard to see how this situation will turn out any differently.

Beyond these issues is the ongoing one of to what extent synods or congregations want to be involved in monitoring the private lives of pastors. As I wrote in my previous post, the adoption of the new ministry practices puts new emphasis on sex only being appropriate in marriage or committed relationships. In general, however, pastors’ personal lives have become more private and both they and their congregations seem to like it that way. Will it be assumed that a pastoral candidate will disclose his or sexual orientation? That they’re dating or might in the future? Would the same expectations be applied to both gay and straight candidates?

Again, in practice this all may work itself out. If the CWA vote is at all indicative of the general attitude of the ELCA, and if national trends continue, it may not be long before most congregations just won’t care. Given how messy and goofy the alternative can be, I suspect the church will move to that stage faster than we might think.


Anonymous said...

Keep us posted. If the money really dries up bad I might donate a few bucks (although I attend and am a memebr of the Disiple Of Christ Christian Church).

David Mc

Doug said...

Thanks David--hopefully it won't come to that!