Wednesday, September 02, 2009

ELCA in crisis: time for everyone to put their cards on the table

Following the vote of the ELCA’s churchwide assembly to permit gay clergy, the big question now is what will be the reaction out in the pews. Already there are reports of congregation councils voting to withdraw, others deciding to withhold contributions, special synod meetings being called, and a surge of negative mail coming into churchwide headquarters in Chicago. So far I haven’t heard of any bishops encouraging this, though several were strongly opposed to the assembly’s actions. (Any that do should, of course, resign on the spot.)

Later this month Lutheran CORE will meet outside Indianapolis and plot strategy for “faithful Lutherans.” Their leaders have already encouraged “directing” contributions away from the ELCA. Missouri Synod President Gerald Kieschnick issued a statement expressing support for those opposing the ELCA action and saying, in effect, anyone wanting to leave, we’ll be happy to have you. There are, however, a number of those who worked against the task force recommendations who are urging patience and discouraging talk of withdrawal from the denomination. Needless to say, the Office of the Presiding Bishop is probably not a very happy place right now.

And yet, while the instantaneous call for withdrawal from the ELCA certainly is a kneejerk reaction, it’s hard not to see the similarly immediate expressed hope for ELCA unity in the same way. The divisions within the ELCA exposed last month are significant. If it is to continue intact, the ELCA is going to have to be a different church. What is not an option is simply continuing on as before.

Since this past spring, the mantra from the sexuality task force and ELCA leadership has been that the proposals were a compromise, respecting differences of belief. Compromise implies an agreement among opposing sides, however, and that was never the case here. Indeed, after their work was done, some task force members resigned and came out against what were supposedly their own recommendations (further evidence of what a strange pushme-pullyou creation the task force was). Any further doubts about this being a compromise were erased by the floor debate at the churchwide assembly. The opposition was energized not just by disagreeing with this particular compromise but by rejecting the notion that there could be a compromise.

In listening to the debate, people on both sides of the issue wondered aloud how the opposing groups could be in the same church. Carl Braaten made this observation about the point-counterpoint letters by retired bishop Herb Chilstrom and himself. Goodsoil convention blogger David Weiss listened to the alternating for-and-against speakers and first thought it was like they were on ships passing in the night. Then, on second thought, he decided it was more like they were in different oceans.

All this raises the question: Is there a common bond that holds the ELCA together? In fact, this is really a question that was left unanswered when the ELCA was formed over twenty years ago. Without that answer, the ELCA has never had a clear sense of itself: either its fundamental beliefs or its mission.

CORE has on its website the text of an address by retired theology professor (and CORE board member) Carl Braaten. The speech was delivered at a CORE event in Arizona last October and makes clear that the issues at stake go far beyond homosexuality. In it Braaten summarizes what he sees as the multiple ways the ELCA is going wrong. It’s a lengthy indictment and well worth the read. While he, of course, portrays one side positively and one negatively, I don’t think his overall assessment of the diverging viewpoints is too far off the mark. In others words, while I would reject his evaluation of it, of course, I basically identify with the side Braaten thinks is leading the ELCA to disaster. I think he sees the division pretty accurately.

The clarity that Braaten provides is what was lacking at the time of the ELCA’s formation and has been lacking in the run-up to the Minneapolis assembly. In the first instance, people were too polite and didn’t want to spoil the party. In this debate twenty years later, the strategy has been to emphasize what we hold in common for the sake of church unity. This has always been disingenuous, however, and now threatens to make a bad situation worse. As Braaten’s piece spells out and last month’s assembly actions demonstrate, there are in the ELCA real differences over significant questions of theology and mission. Any attempt to patch this over by getting everyone to hold hands and sing Kumbaya is only going to further antagonize the opposing sides.

The ELCA’s leadership has to get past the notion that their top priority is holding the ELCA together. Indeed, following such a strategy may well guarantee the ELCA’s breakup. Instead, there needs to be honest dialog expressing the diversity of beliefs present in the church. The position described by Braaten needs a response. There needs to be an honest and energetic push-back that says, “No, we think you’re wrong and here’s why.” Only then can it be determined if there are larger, transcending beliefs and values that will allow the ELCA to continue functioning effectively.

This may be more difficult that it sounds, however. There has been a tendency among those more liberally minded to “cloke” their beliefs with artificially orthodox and traditional language and concepts. There are a variety of reasons for this and it tends—with some justification—to drive conservatives nuts. It’s time for liberals to find the courage of their convictions. Instead of trying to squirm out of conservatives’ accusations (like those in Braaten’s essay) there needs to be some honest and bold acceptance of the differences that are now evident to everyone watching.

If it’s not already too late, the need is for genuine conversation. Perhaps the opposing sides really don’t understand each other. Perhaps minds can be changed. Perhaps differences are more tolerable than believed and accommodations can be found. Perhaps—but nothing will be accomplished without honesty and an end to past equivocation. We need to respect each other enough to at least do that. Celebrate where we come together, acknowledge where we part, and then decide if there is enough of the former to overcome the latter for the ELCA to remain intact. What we can’t do is presume ahead of time what the outcome of such a conversation will or ought to be.


Anonymous said...

If the early Gnostics were so self centered, why did they have churches to gather in? If the early Catholics were so loving, why did they lock those doors (of the Gnostic church (es)) and burn them to death? They had poor faith.
Yes, this sort of history made me lose faith in the Catholic Church. I still want to be part of a community of faith, but one that is humble and inclusive and recognizes the mystery and worth of every human.

Comparing someone who is naturally loving and spiritual to the Nazi regime is nuts.

"Gnosticism was the ancient form of pagan religion that the early church had to fight tooth and nail for its very survival. The word
Gnosticism comes from the Greek word “gnosis,” which means “knowledge.”

Knowledge is needed to find truth. And truth shouldn’t scare anyone. The early line “It’s been foisted on them from above” means something different to me. Bring on the Gnostics, and don’t harm them, show them the light of your soul and marvel in theirs. David Mc

Doug said...

This is an example of where Carl and I are looking at the same thing from different ends of the telescope. I agree, I think his reading of early church history is very distorted. His black & white, good guys/bad guys caricature is not only not helpful, I think it's just flat out wrong. The triumph of orthodoxy was very much a mixed-blessing. The gnostics had much to contribute--and did. Gnosticism was never completely snuffed out and, yes, in some fashion is around to this day. And connecting them with the Nazis is just over-the-top nonsense.