Saturday, December 12, 2009

Bishop Hanson's in the hall

I finally got to watch Bishop Hanson’s online “town hall meeting” (I was on the road last Sunday when it was aired). I hesitated whether to write anything about it at all. One reason I am is Hanson’s closing statement that he intends to do this again. I really hope he doesn’t.

It was a strange hour. First, it was yet another attempt by the church to look like it’s in the big leagues, only to fall embarrassingly short. The setting in the recently vacated Augsburg Fortress retail space appeared as makeshift as it obviously was. Carlos Pena role as “the questioner” was artificial and inappropriate. I’m sorry but I couldn’t help thinking that his dentures were loose—wrong person for the wrong job.

With his audience on three sides and Pena popping up with questions from behind him, Hanson looked like a whirling Dervish trying to figure out where to look. Hanson and Pena’s sound levels were significantly different so, listening with earphones, I had to keep raising and lowering the volume as they each spoke. The live audience apparently was all from the Chicago area (I recognized about half of them) so could hardly be said to be representative of the ELCA. I don’t know how they or the questions submitted online were selected.

Hanson was weirdly energized, like he had had too much caffeine. He seemed to be enjoying himself but also seemed to be trying to look like he was enjoying himself. The whole question and answer exchange came off as staged. Hanson launched into his response to each question almost instantly, as if he knew the questions in advance and already had his answers planned. I don’t think he did and it probably was just a result of his “adrenaline rush.” As a result, though, he didn’t appear to think or reflect at all before he spoke so his immediate talking sometimes seemed to be just words. Not surprisingly, he was prone to ramble.

As I listened to Hanson’s responses I had much the same reaction as I had to his video message a few weeks ago. Obviously a primary goal of this media push is to try to counter the negative talk following this summer’s churchwide assembly (CWA09) and to refocus attention on positive aspects of the church’s ministry. Unlike his previous message, the questions forced Hanson to deal more directly with the ELCA’s problems. Nonetheless, he continued his “happy talk,” though it was no more convincing this time than it was before.

Actually, many of his responses were disingenuous or wildly unrealistic, and the continuous effort to put a positive spin on the ELCA’s problems sometimes was just silly. He described the recent staff cuts as “cutting to the marrow of the bone the priorities of this church.” In the next breath, however, he insisted they did not diminish the church’s commitment to racial justice or ethnic ministries (the specific subject of the question) or that the church was changing its priorities.

I couldn’t help but think of [ELCA executive for administration] Wyvetta Bullock’s refreshingly frank statement after the staff cuts were announced: “We will being doing less with less.” Hanson’s inconsistent bemoaning of the ELCA cuts and insistence that everything will go on as before diminishes his credibility and hardly makes him appear serious about dealing with this crisis.

The questions from the Chicago audience were mostly softballs, or they at least were tolerant of Hanson’s softball answers. Everyone nodded, chuckled and smiled. Several of the submitted questions were more pointed, however, mostly dealing with the sexuality social statement and revised gay clergy policy adopted by CWA09. In response to these, Hanson’s mantra was to urge all sides to remain together in conversation. Yet, apart from the August assembly itself, he cited no examples where this was happening and, as he returned to this theme repeatedly during the hour, it became harder to imagine how it would occur.

Holding the ELCA together is obviously a primary concern for Hanson, but he didn’t make a very convincing case for it. While he insisted the ELCA will be “diminished” by the loss of opponents of the assembly action he seemed unable to articulate why this would be a bad thing. Frankly, it was reminiscent of the vague explanations given for forming the ELCA in the first place. It seems we’re still trying to sell “bigger is better.”

The “big tent” ecclesiology Hanson espoused just isn’t convincing or even imaginable. Responding to someone opposed to the new ministry policy, Hanson insisted the questioner loved the Bible just as he did. But do they love it in the same way? As I listened to his description of the “evangelical Lutheran” way of reading the Bible I knew there would be listeners squirming, or worse. His approach is one I’m comfortable with but I know it drives conservatives crazy.

Hanson tried to use various historical examples to support his notion that differing viewpoints can coexist in the same church but none of them worked. He cited the presence of Jewish and gentile Christians in the early church, yet history shows that the Jewish wing became the increasingly sectarian Ebionites which eventually faded away. Hanson quotes Paul’s “many parts, one body” theology but Paul was referring to different gifts and abilities, not differing opinions and beliefs. Using a more contemporary example, Hanson gave the example of differing Christian attitudes toward war. Yet where do significant pro-military versus pacifist factions exist together, except perhaps in Roman Catholicism?

The biggest challenge the ELCA faces, according to Hanson, is for the distraction over sexuality to result in loss of focus on mission. Can the two be so easily separated though? He welcomed a questioner’s report of people returning to church after the assembly actions and urged opponents to see the possibility of people coming to Christ this way. But how could they cheer such news if they think this is the result of a delusion?

For the first time I heard Hanson identify what I think is the crux of the church’s division over homosexuality. An online questioner asked how the church could endorse something the Bible clearly condemns. His wordy and circuitous answer finally got around to saying that the modern understanding of homosexuality is not in the Bible. Hanson couldn’t bring himself to complete the thought, however, to simply say and therefore the Bible is wrong.

As with Hanson’s open letter last month, I was left wondering who the intended audience was for this event. I can’t imagine that opponents of the sexuality decisions were persuaded by anything Hanson said. To me it seems that this is about creating the meme about those who are or will be leaving the ELCA: “We reached out to them but they wouldn’t talk. What more could we do?” Rather than simply acknowledging there is a sincere difference of opinion, for which there is no institutional compromise, conservatives will be labeled as stubborn and unreasonable. I’m sure this will go well.


Anonymous said...

>>His wordy and circuitous answer finally got around to saying that the modern understanding of homosexuality is not in the Bible. Hanson couldn’t bring himself to complete the thought, however, to simply say and therefore the Bible is wrong.>>

To say that the Bible does not speak to the topic of loving, committed, lifelong same-gender relationships is not the same thing as saying the Bible is wrong.

Melanchthon said...

Thank you for your insights. I had almost the exact same reaction.

The only plausible reason I heard him say for staying in the ELCA (if one disagrees with the CWA) is the "richness of diversity." Diversity is wondeful, but I don't see diversity (for diversity sake) as being a major theme of the Bible.

Anyway, I was hoping for more honesty and less "selling."

Again, thanks for your honest review. I've been afraid of saying the same things for fear of being labeled "crabby" and "unsupportive.

Doug said...

Anonymous, I understand your point. As I've written before, in my view the Bible doesn't address homosexuality at all because the concept didn't exist until modern times. In a few places, however, there are Bible passages that clearly condemn same-sex relations and I think it's too clever to try to explain them away. To me it's obvious the Bible is wrong about many things, as I would expect of any ancient document. That doesn't bother me and being honest in admitting it means not having to resort to twisted and complicated attempts to explain them away. How did Joshua make the sun stand still? He didn't and couldn't because the sun is already "standing still". It's the earth that moves but the Bible writers didn't know that. We do.