Who or what has a conscience?

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The ELCA now faces a difficult philosophical question: who or what has a conscience?  That every member has a conscience is clear; the conscience of no pastor, bishop, or layperson can be forced.  But can institutions or groups of persons have a conscience?  Does a synod, as an institution or a social body, have a conscience?  Can a synod say that it is conscience bound not to approve for ordination a partnered gay or lesbian candidate?  Who determines a synod’s conscience: the bishop? the synodical assembly?  the synod council?  Can a synod state that, as a matter of conscience, no non-celibate gay or lesbian pastors will be included in the synod’s ministerium?
The actions of the ELCA Assembly did not decide these questions.  They are left to the ELCA Church Council.  How they decide these questions will have far-reaching impact on how the ELCA handles these matters and on how those who dissent from the Assembly’s decisions see their place in the ELCA.
The ELCA now faces a difficult philosophical question: who or what has a conscience?  That every member has a conscience is clear; the conscience of no pastor, bishop, or layperson can be forced.  But can institutions or groups of persons have a conscience?  Does a synod, as an institution or a social body, have a conscience?  Can a synod say that it is conscience bound not to approve for ordination a partnered gay or lesbian candidate?  Who determines a synod’s conscience: the bishop? the synodical assembly?  the synod council?  Can a synod state that, as a matter of conscience, no non-celibate gay or lesbian pastors will be included in the synod’s ministerium?
The actions of the ELCA Assembly did not decide these questions.  They are left to the ELCA Church Council and the Conference of Bishops.  How they decide these questions will have far-reaching impact on how the ELCA handles these matters and on how those who dissent from the Assembly’s decisions see their place in the ELCA.
Michael Root
Commemoration of the Beheading of John the Baptist
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3 Responses to “Who or what has a conscience?”

  1. Pr. Dan Biles Says:

    On a practical note, we are told that no congregation will be forced to call an active homosexual pastor against their will, their “bound conscience.” Well, we have heard that line before: 40 years ago with women’s ordination. The words then were almost the same: the LCA/ALC would “honor the conscience” of churches which did not want to call a female pastor. That lasted a few years. Then numbers of female ordinands increased and needed calls. Bishops started pressuring churches to call female pastors and punishing those who resisted. I know. It happened to my first parish after I left. It will happen in the coming years. Just give it time. (This is not a criticism of women’s ordination; I simply note how bureaucratic momentum operates.)

  2. revianwolfe Says:

    Dr. Root,

    I’ve been asking myself these same questions and if we can even answer yes to the question that a synod or congregation can have a conscience, then we must also ask at what point does that conscience become bound either way? There is probably no congregation of the ELCA where 100% of the members are in agreement on this issue, or if there are they are the exception and not the rule. In the ELCA we’ve decided to rule by vote, so must a synod or congregation vote on the state of its conscience? Does a 51% vote against rostering persons in PALMSGRs (publicly accountable lifelong monogamous same-gender relationships) qualify as a “bound” conscience? 2/3? 3/4? Unanimous? At what point can a congregation/synod declare itself to be conscience bound?

    At least in my vague understanding of “bound conscience” it is a persons unquestioned belief in the approval or disapproval of this issue. Not a person’s 51/49 opinion gently leaning one way or another. Bound conscience seems to be a person’s hardline stance either for or against. If that is true, then what level of requirement is needed for a congregation/synod to honestly and faithfully have a bound conscience regarding this issue. I honestly don’t see this as a possibility especially in equally divided congregations on this issue. What of those congregations who can not discern their bound conscience?

    Another problem that will arise, I think, especially when you can’t swing a cat without hitting an ELCA congregation in these neck of the woods, is that congregations will realign according to the bound conscience of those congregations. If my bound conscience is in favor of this and my congregation’s isn’t, but First Lutheran Church down the block is, why wouldn’t I go where I am in the majority and not in the minority? Or the other way, if I believe homosexuality to be sin and needs to be repented of and my pastor and the congregation’s bound conscience believes it to be a good and blessed thing why would I stay there when another ELCA church down the road is of the same mind as I am? And how will a visitor know the difference? Are we going to need to amend the church signs to read ELCA-BCY (bound conscience yes) or ELCA-BCN (bound-conscience no)?

    The bound conscience argument is deeply problematic and honestly I don’t think feasible.

  3. Jonathan Jenkins Says:

    The 19th century term for “bound conscience” was “private judgment.”

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