Wednesday, December 16, 2009

We need to talk

In his recent online “town hall meeting,” ELCA Bishop Hanson repeated a plea he has been making since the churchwide assembly last August (CWA09). He has been asking those upset with the decision to liberalize the church’s stance on homosexuality and gay clergy to remain with the denomination and “be in conversation” with the rest of the church. In short: “Please don’t leave. Let’s talk.”

While Hanson’s invitation is gracious and understandable, I wonder what he thinks there is to talk about. In the last few months I have occasionally checked in with some of the conservative Lutheran websites and blogs. Frankly, what I hear in such places is nearly a foreign language.

I posted earlier about a north suburban Chicago congregation newsletter column by ELCA Pastor Terry Breum. His list of beliefs which he feels are challenged today in the ELCA was stunning. If I met him I would be tempted to ask, “What rock have you been living under?” His credo seemed a bit conservative even for the LCMS but would make most any fundamentalist happy. It’s hard to imagine how he and I are pastors in the same denomination.

Pastor Breum may be an extreme example, but the conversations I have seen on other web sites reveal a deep and wide chasm within the ELCA. Bishop Hanson and other ELCA leaders following his line are wrong in believing this is simply or even primarily about acceptance of homosexuality and gay clergy. What the actions of CWA09 did was to reveal fundamental differences over theology and mission within the ELCA.

Bishop Hanson has expressed concern that this dispute is diverting ELCA energy and resources from its mission. The assumption here is that mission is something which unites us but that’s wishful thinking. Take this simple example: Is it our mission to save sinners from hell? It is for Pastor Breum but it certainly isn’t for me. According to Pastor Bruem, universalism (“taught in many seminaries” he says as an aside) is one of the ELCA’s many heretical defects. Are he and I really in agreement on the church’s mission? I can’t imagine how we could be.

What then is our “mission” in starting new congregations? Suppose some young protégé of Pastor Breum, fired up for mission, wants to be a mission developer. Would I want such a person starting a new ELCA congregation or my congregation’s mission support paying for such a project? Heavens no. Would he want a protégé of mine starting a new ELCA congregation? I seriously doubt that would be the case either.

As I wrote before, what is disingenuous about the protests of Pastor Breum and others is the implication that all this heresy appeared just recently. Where have they been? While homosexuality was perhaps just becoming a public conversation topic, when I was in seminary over twenty-five years ago all these “heretical” topics were openly discussed and often affirmed by both professors and students. And many of the texts we read on these topics had been around for some time.

Unfortunately the opportunity for conversation is probably long past. Theological divisions within the ELCA are not new; they’ve been there from the start. For whatever reason, the desire to unite American Lutheranism (or come as close as possible) led to an unspoken agreement to avoid divisive topics and “accent the positive” of what presumably united everyone. Much of that unity was expressed in jargon that was sufficiently vague (like “mission”) so people could interpret it however they wanted to. Had those conversations taken place, they almost certainly would have delayed an already stumbling merger process and may well have stopped it altogether.

To some extent, the practice of avoiding divisive theological issues had been that of the ELCA’s predecessor churches as well. Did it work because those churches were more ethnically homogenous or because they were smaller? Or have the times changed? This is certainly a more polarized period, politically and ideologically. I suspect all these are factors and no doubt there are others. In any case, the notion of respecting each other’s “bound conscience” and agreeing to disagree doesn’t seem to have much of a future.

Recently, the ELCA’s two former presiding bishops, Herb Chilstrom and H. George Anderson, issued a joint appeal to rally moral and financial support for the embattled denomination. They both see their earlier hard work bringing about the ELCA in danger. They’re convinced the ELCA is worth saving and has important work to do:

Our troubled world needs the Good News of the Gospel and all that flows from it. Our differences must not divide us at a time like this. We are absolutely certain that we can continue to live together and serve as one family in the ELCA.

Sincere and well meaning, theirs are nonetheless voices of an older generation and a time in the church’s life that is rapidly passing. The gospel which they see uniting the church is actually the very subject of its division. A conversation among representative leaders about the meaning of that “good news” would be very interesting indeed but would likely also lead to the realization that the ELCA stopped being “one family” some time ago (if it ever was).

In the present instance, one side sees the good news to be a spiritual healing of our community division over differing sexual orientations and a welcome to those formally ostracized. Another sees the good news as a message of forgiveness for sinful behavior and the availability of a charism enabling sinners to resist the temptation at the heart of their disordered personality. Trying bringing that together in an evangelism brochure!

There will be need for conversation but not between the antagonists in the ELCA’s current squabble. That train’s left the station and it’s not coming back. By this time next year, however, the dust will have settled and there should be a fairly clear picture of the ELCA’s composition going forward. It is this remnant that needs to talk to each other and develop a coherent and meaningful message and mission for the church.

It’s obvious from the dramatic cultural changes happening today that the nature of the church is going to be very different in the years to come. Because of the ELCA’s theological “diversity,” its attempts to respond thus far have been little more than flailing. Those remaining in the future ELCA, however, should have sufficient common ground for a real and productive conversation about what is the “good news” for 21st century America. Then from there a conversation can begin about what the church ought to be doing to make that gospel known.


John Hudson said...

Finally a non-conservative who gets it. Thank you for your sensitive, non-condescending post (paired with your previous post on Bp. Hanson's St. Nicholas Day dog and pony show). And yes, you're right: It's not about homosexuality (alone) and "we" (traditionalists or whatever you want to call us) do speak a language apart from yours. I would question whose, though, is the foreign one. But fair's fair and it's your blog and at least you understand, or at least admit to the real truth of, the chasm. Finally, I don't know if this qualifies as irony or anything at all, but your expression of incredulity about traditionalists who ignored the debate 25 years ago over the current disputed questions reminds me of the non-conservatives' own assumption that (and I'm stating this in the form of a generalization) that Paul could not have known much about homosexuality or homosexual behavior 2000 years ago. People are neither wiser nor dumber now than people were "way back then" and I'm sure Paul knew a lot more than we give him credit for.

Thanks, and Advent blessings.

Doug said...

Thank you, John, and Advent blessings to you, as well.

Jeff Ruby said...

Doug, I echo what John H said, thank you. I don't agree with you on this issue but your comments are well thought out, lucid, and recognize that people do see this issue differently.

Thanks for the blog, and have a blessed Advent and Christmas....Jeff