Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Synodical confusion in Iowa

Last spring when I first read the convoluted ministry proposals of the ELCA’s sexuality task force, one item in particular raised an eyebrow. This was the notion that synods could exercise their “bound conscience” and be free to “act according to their convictions” with regard to ordaining and calling noncelibate gay clergy. I thought at the time, “This looks like an accident waiting to happen.” Well, there’s a sound of crunching metal coming from Iowa.

The Northeastern Iowa Synod Council recently adopted resolutions rejecting both the sexuality social statement and revised ministry policies adopted at last August’s churchwide assembly (CWA09). A lengthy online discussion of this at prettygoodlutherans.com is filled with “what ifs,” “what abouts” and “yeah buts.” These Lutheran Hawkeyes have opened an ecclesial Pandora’s Box which could well get worse before it gets better. Someone in the ELCA's leadership should have seen this coming.

In contrast with their clearly defined theological views, the 16th century Lutheran reformers were surprisingly ambivalent when it came to the church’s organization. After all the shouting, maybe they just ran out of energy to give the subject much attention. In contrast, Calvin and the Presbyterians virtually made an Eleventh Commandment out of Paul’s admonition, “Let all things be done decently and in order.” The Church of England basically kept the Roman Catholic structure already in place while severing, of course, any loyalty to the pope.

Lutherans, in contrast, really have no indigenous polity (church organizational structure). As they organized their new churches, Luther’s followers knew they wanted to avoid a hierarchy with oppressive authority. The details for making that a reality were a little vague, however. There would be some kind of regional administrators (sometimes called bishops) but congregations would retain their independence. Congregations would have pastors but leadership would be shared with councils or boards of lay leaders. Some have seen this as a hodge-podge of the more defined systems of Lutheranism's Protestant cousins, sometimes dubbed episcopopresbygationalism.

Organized in 1987, the ELCA continues this fine, muddled tradition. The evolution of Lutheran organization in this country has as much or more to do with improving transportation and communication technology, and the growing dominance of industrial corporatism, as it does with reflection on the nature of the church. As church “business” has grown in quantity and complexity so too has the bureaucracy needed to administer it. Cloisters and arches have given way to cubicles and dropped ceilings.

The term synod, which the ELCA uses for its geographic sub-units, comes from a Greek word meaning “council” or “assembly.” Up until recently this was how Lutherans used it, as well. Early in my ministry, pastors still talked about “going to synod” meaning the annual meeting of regional pastors and congregational lay representatives. Over time, the role of “president” of this meeting became a paying job, which then needed an office and support staff and assistants. Some Lutheran bodies began referring to the region which met at these synods also as “synods,” i.e. synod meant both the meeting and the territory of the congregations which attended a particular synod.

This usage was adopted by the ELCA from the LCA, its largest predecessor body. By backing into this usage, however, no one has ever sat down to figure out just what a synod really is. The clearest evidence of this is the ELCA’s own constitution. It goes on for pages (Chapter 10) defining the geographic boundaries of the synods, details extensive responsibilities for them, but never defines what a synod is. Once you realize that, then the description of the various tasks synods are supposed to carry out becomes a little weird. Just who or what is supposed to be doing these things? Is it the synod bishop, synod office, synod council, synod assembly, synod pastors, synod congregations? What is the “synod” in front of all those words?

Consider this opening statement (10.2): “Each congregation . . . shall establish a relationship with the synod in whose territory it is located.” How would a congregation do that? Just what is it that a congregation is supposed to be relating to? What (if anything) does this mean? In fact, if you look very closely at many of the constitutional statements about synods they basically become tautologies.

For example, this is the over-arching purpose of synods as defined in the ELCA Constitution (10.21): “Each synod, in partnership with the churchwide organization, shall bear primary responsibility for the oversight of the life and mission of this church in its territory.” To have any meaning, one has to conclude that the synod is something different than “this church in its territory.” Otherwise you’ve just said, “The synod shall have responsibility for itself.” So again one asks who or what is this synod that’s shouldering this responsibility?

The action of the NE Iowa Synod Council is, as a result, confusing to say the least. Are the council members really speaking for anyone beside themselves? They seem to recognize the ambiguity of the situation. The bold-sounding resolution is suddenly damped down when it “recommends” that the synod candidacy committee and synod “office of bishop” abide by the previous ordination standards. Presumably they could say “No.”

Which brings us back to the task force proposal adopted by CWA09. Can a synod have “a bound conscience?” Can a synod have a conscience at all? How would we know what it is? It is the bishop’s, the synod council’s, the synod assembly’s, all the synod congregation’s? Is a synod really a separate entity at all in the ELCA system? Isn’t a synod just an administrative convenience, like a corporate sales district—a piece of a puzzle which could have been cut up completely differently, in more or fewer pieces, in an infinite number of shapes and sizes?

When the task force proposal came out, somewhere (ELCA Secretary’s office?) a red flag should have gone up. The term “synod” should have been removed from any reference to dissent from the new ministry standards. The ELCA is not made up of its synods (ala the United States and it states). Constitutionally, the ELCA creates the synods as a means of carrying out its wider-church ministry. If it chose to do so, it could completely rearrange the synods, reorganize or rename them, or abolish them altogether.

Unfortunately, the ELCA constitution does not recognize this in all its parts or apply this logic consistently. The NE Iowa Synod Council’s resolutions are a loud call for this matter to be clarified, and soon. The ELCA has enough on its plate without having a constitutional crisis to resolve on top of everything else. A synod cannot have a conscience, bound or otherwise. When it comes to ELCA synods, there's less here than meets the eye.


Jeff Ruby said...

Well written, Doug. Thanks. While we often disagree on the issues, I think you point out some very good issues here, and ones that will have to be wrestled with.

Erik said...

Good stuff, Doug. Thanks for sharing your perspective.