Archive for September, 2009

The Way Forward (2): The Scriptural Christ, part 2

September 30, 2009

In my last post, I presented some impressions underlying my uneasiness about the role of Jesus in ELCA preaching and practice of all varieties. Even if you aren’t convinced, it might be worthwhile to read on. Worry about the role Jesus is playing in our lives is at least a wholesome worry, and reflection prompted thereby might have value even if the concern is overstated.

I’m not suggesting that we don’t believe in Jesus, or that we don’t realize that our hope depends on him. But his experienced presence in our life as a church seems less vivid, less concrete, less attention-grabbing than it might be. He seems constantly ready to dissolve into various good things of which he might be the symbol or withdraw into the past or dwindle into a factor in a doctrinal equation.

It’s not likely that there is any one cause of this. There have certainly been theological trends in modern Protestantism that might lead in this direction. But I’ve taught too long to believe that theological teaching drives the life of the church directly, though theological attitudes and assumptions can get into the water supply and affect the way people think and (most important) frame questions for generations. In this post I want to suggest that another kind of problem dogs our engagement with Jesus: our broken relationship to Holy Scripture.

Of course, what I call brokenness, others call maturity. One widespread way of receiving modern historical study of the Bible is to affirm that it does indeed break down the church’s historic relationship to Scripture, and about time, too. Such a break is a compelling rational necessity, it is held, and a great liberation from the stifling fundamentalism of the pre-modern Christian tradition.

This view is easier to hold the less you know about pre-modern biblical interpretation. Still, it’s a powerful “narrative,” as they say, and its influence hangs over every pastor and teacher educated in a mainline seminary – which is by no means to say that seminary Bible professors always desire this outcome. Let me say too that I am not taking a superior position here. I’ve spent years trying to think my way out of this “narrative,” and I still feel its pressure.

I want to focus on the difficulty we have in reading the Bible as a unified witness to Jesus Christ. Traditional biblical interpretation, from the Fathers up to and including 19th-century evangelicals (with whom the confessional Lutherans of the time significantly overlapped), could still preach from a Bible whose every part converged to give depth and resonance and mass to the presentation of Jesus Christ. Every passage in Scripture was in principle relevant to the interpretation of every other passage, and the target-point of the whole was the particular person Jesus in the uniqueness of his story.

It was of course possible to do this badly – just as there is also a lot of bad historical-critical exegesis. There was exegesis and preaching that flattened out differences and smoothed away tensions in the Scriptures to produce a dogmatically homogenized and thoroughly predictable Christ. But there was also exegesis and preaching that allowed text to strike sparks from text, let Paul, John, and the Synoptics mix and react to one another, with sometimes explosive gospel-force, and found in the Old Testament not only theological foundations but an endless treasury of metaphorical figures for Christ and his salvation which, if nothing else, had the energy to penetrate and form the mind and imagination.

By contrast, when the witness of every text or text-tradition has to stand by itself, when the only permissible connections between biblical texts are historical connections, when preachers are conditioned to fear over-interpretation far more than under-interpretation, when the Old Testament may be connected with Christ only in roundabout ways, and when the ideal of “critical” exegesis discourages imagination from playing the role it would normally play in the interpretation of a body of literature – it isn’t really surprising that the results are a wee bit thin, despite the best efforts of all concerned.

Next time: Does it really have to be this way?


“Traditionalists” and “Revisionists”

September 29, 2009

Several comment-writers on my posts have either objected to or asked about the terms “traditionalist” and “revisionist.” I meant them as purely descriptive labels: on the one hand, those who hold to traditional Christian teaching on sexuality and on the other hand, those who think that teaching should be revised. I thought that these were less fraught terms than, say, “conservative” and “liberal.” 

Of course, whenever you assign labels to parties in a dispute, they inevitably become “fraught.” After all, “Left” and “Right” originally referred to the seating arrangements in the French National Assembly of 1791. But notice that I’ve by no means assumed that the “traditionalists” on this issue represent the great tradition faithfully in all respects; I’m in fact writing to advocate that we should do so more fully than we have. And I haven’t said much at all about revisionists except to call them sisters and brothers and note that traditionalists are not that different from them in many respects. I don’t know how to be more even-handed than that.

It would be nice to avoid “labelling” as some have advocated. But when confronted with real differences, it’s necessary to make distinctions, and those distinctions need to be marked with words.

Comments on repentance

September 29, 2009

Some recent comments by Rebekah Weant Costello and Pr. Ian Wolfe further the conversation on repentance and deserve not to be lost in the shuffle, so I am linking to them here, here, and here.
Michael Root

The Way Forward (2): The Scriptural Christ, part 1

September 28, 2009

I’ve been writing about a spiritual agenda for traditional Christians in the ELCA after the August Assembly, starting with penitence. But true penitence is inseparable from faith in Jesus Christ. The “way forward” must also begin and continue with a renewed encounter with him.

An advantage of this proposal is that almost no one will disagree with it. That’s also its disadvantage. We all know that Christ is important; we’re Christians, aren’t we? It’s not so easy, however, to get out of the box of routine and reconsider what encountering Jesus means.

I am going to begin this series of posts by relaying six observations that make me uneasy about the role Jesus is playing in our preaching and life. They are of course generalizations to which there are many exceptions; I am not indicting every pastor and teacher in the ELCA. Also, I admit up front that this is subjective evidence.  The question for you the reader is whether they add up to a picture you can recognize. You may be wholly unconvinced that there’s a problem at all, and I can’t refute you. I can only share my impressions.

1. Most of the sermons I have heard or read over the past several decades have been based on the Gospel lesson, but a majority of them have not really been about Jesus. Sermons tend to get diverted early from the concrete figure of Jesus to focus on some truth, value, imperative, or experiential possibility supposedly represented by Jesus.

2. What good thing does God give us in the gospel? I hear very few sermons that follow Luther (in the Catechisms) in saying that the good thing is having Jesus as our Lord instead of the devil. Instead I hear a lot of abstractions about being accepted (but into what?), stirring but vague rhetoric about new possibilities, and a lot of generic assurance that “God is with you.”

3. Even preachers who make the point that it’s Jesus’ presence that saves us don’t often seem to have much to say about him. The affirmation that his presence saves us doesn’t often lead to an interest in knowing what he is like, what sort of fellow he is, and what it would be like to have him present with us. He tends to be described in doctrinal or metaphorical formulae, remaining what literary critics call a flat rather than a rounded character.

4. Increasingly often I hear a kind of casual de-christologizing of the Eucharist – vague talk about “God’s presence with us in bread and wine” as though the gift of the body and blood of Jesus of Nazareth, God’s incarnate Son, gave no special shape to our joy or our hope.

5. I hear Jesus appearing less and less as the subject of verbs in sermons on the Gospels. Instead we hear about what Matthew or Luke is telling us by this or that way of presenting Jesus. Does profiting from modern insights into the theological distinctness of the Gospels require that we always say “Mark presents Jesus as saying” rather than “Jesus says”? This distances Jesus from the assembly; the Gospels become veils of opinion behind which he is hidden rather than media of his presence in our midst.

6. Finally, what has Jesus got to do with “Lutheranism”? My impression is that theologically articulate Lutherans of all schools can talk a blue streak about justification, grace, faith and works, law and gospel, etc., without ever saying more about Jesus Christ than the formalistic “for Christ’s sake” of Augsburg Confession IV. It certainly doesn’t seem that standard ways of explaining Lutheran themes have the effect of directing people towards the concrete figure of Jesus and involving them more closely with him.

Let me be clear that I have by no means observed these trends only among “liberal” Lutherans. As I said in my last post, we traditionalists are not so very different from our revisionist brothers and sisters, and this is one of the ways in which that is so.

In my next post, I’ll try to sum up my concerns.

Michael Root: Are We Divided? (1)

September 28, 2009

For many, the answer to the question “Are We Divided?” is either obvious or unasked. For those furious over the decisions of the ELCA, that we no longer are one in the gospel seems all too painfully clear. For those who keep calling for unity or ‘churchmanship’, but without discussion of the nature of that unity, the question goes unasked. I have said earlier on this blog that “unity as it has existed in the ELCA is no longer possible (and perhaps has not existed for a while). The shared sense of law and gospel that communion requires is gone.” That statement needs support and I will try to provide it in a series of posts.

There is a wide ecumenical consensus that the unity of the church involves the common proclamation of the gospel, the Christian message, and that such common proclamation implies a common vision of the nature and shape of the Christian life. Yes, the gospel is first and foremost about what God does, but what God does has the end of bringing us into communion with God and with others who also share in that communion. Communion with God and others in the body of Christ is not a passive state, but an active faith, lived out in forms of life. Some common sense of the shape of that life cannot be separated from a shared participation in the mission of the gospel.

The need for such a shared vision is mentioned in a variety of ecumenical dialogues (and, as a matter of principle, I will begin with the ecumenical discussion, not with a narrowly Lutheran one). The Joint Working Group of the Roman Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches refers to “that unity in moral life which is Christ’s will” (references at end of this post). Similarly, the co-chairs of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission states: “Authentic Christian unity is as much a matter of life as of faith. Those who share one faith in Christ will share one life in Christ.” The US Catholic-Reformed dialogue stated: “We acknowledge that belief and behavior, faith and works, should not be separated. Therefore issues of ethics and morality, which involve the relation between conscience and authority, are not peripheral to but at the heart of the faithful hearing of the Gospel.” The Lutheran-Reformed international dialogue noted the legitimacy of diversity within and among the churches on ethical issues, but then states:. “But here too diversity can become illegitimate; there are certain ethical beliefs which cease to express the agreement reached on the understanding of the gospel. . . . It is therefore important that, both within our churches and communities, as well as between our churches, we engage in a common search for common witness and service where the important issues of our day are concerned (peace, justice, race, gender, bioethics, etc.).” Diversity “does not imply undifferentiated acceptance of any or all attitudes or opinions.”

Of course, not every ethical disagreement destroys that needed agreement on the shape of the Christian life, no more than does every disagreement on theology. A difficult task of discernment is called for. What cannot be done is simply to rule out the need for some level of ethical agreement as one aspect of Christian unity.

Michael Root

Joint Working Group between the Roman Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches. “The Ecumenical Dialogue on Moral Issues: Potential Sources of Common Witness or of Divisions.” In Joint Working Group Between the Roman Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches: Seventh Report, 1998. Geneva, Switzerland: WCC Publications, 1998. P. 32.

Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission. Life in Christ: Morals, Communion and the Church. London: Church House Publishing; Catholic Truth Society, 1994. P. v.

Roman Catholic/Presbyterian-Reformed Consultation. “Partners in Peace and Education (1985).” Building Unity: Ecumenical Dialogues with Roman Catholic Participation in the United States. Ed. Joseph A. Burgess and Jeffrey Gros. New York: Paulist Press, 1989. para. 42.

Joint Commission of the Lutheran World Federation and the World Alliance of Reformed Churches. Toward Church Fellowship. Geneva: Lutheran World Federation, 1989. para. 72.

(Next post: is this view compatible with CA 7?)

David Yeago: The Way Forward (1) Penitence, continued

September 25, 2009

In my last post, I wrote about penitence in general, claiming that penitence is always and at every moment the only gateway to a worthwhile future, no matter where we happen to be standing. In this post I want to talk about the specific reasons why the traditionalist response to the 2009 Assembly should begin and continue in penitence. I want to suggest two reasons.

1. Traditionalists should begin and continue their response in penitence precisely because we’re in the right on these issues. That may sound paradoxical, but it really isn’t. Given the condition of the believer as described at the end of my previous post, one of the hardest things in this world is to be in the right without getting it wrong.

That’s the challenge facing traditionalists. Our consciences are captive to the Word of God on this matter, and we have not been shown plain texts of Scripture or clear arguments of reason sufficient to change our convictions. But being right does not guarantee that we will get it right – that we will respond to the present situation in ways that honor the Word that binds us.

In a sense, our best moments as disciples of Jesus are the moments when we have just discovered that we have been wrong, embarrassingly wrong. Those are the moments when we are most aware that the truth of God stands over against us and judges us, when our trust in ourselves is most shaken, and we are most likely to be teachable. By contrast, the moments when we are aware of being right are moments of grave spiritual danger. That’s when we are most likely to identify our own mindset with God’s word, as though being right about one thing meant that we are right about everything important. That’s when we are most likely to think ourselves competent for the journey of discipleship – as though being right implied that we are righteous. It’s the moment when we easily become least teachable – and therefore the biggest fools.

2. A traditionalist response should begin and continue in penitence because we are not that different from our revisionist brothers and sisters. This catastrophe did not come upon the ELCA out of nowhere, like a Creature from the Black Lagoon. It developed quite naturally out of the mind and life of late twentieth-century American Lutheranism. As Michael Root has suggested, standard 20th-century academic construals of Lutheranism, even at their best, typically had structural weaknesses that lent themselves to this outcome. These are the Lutheran theologies that shaped most of us who are seminary educated, and through us have entered into the shared mind of our denomination.

Furthermore, we have been formed in a common church life. This is an area where generalizations easily make people angry, but surely it can be said that we have mostly not been, in recent decades, a biblically or spiritually intense people. Let me speak only for myself: I have spent over thirty years studying the “great tradition” of Christian thought and practice. I know the diversity of the tradition and the many different forms of church life and practice it contains. And still I have to say that the main lesson I have learned – but not learned well enough – is that by the standards of that tradition, despite its diversity, I am a shallow Christian. When I look around and suspect that by those same standards I have been formed in a somewhat shallow church, I am not viewing the scene from a position of superiority and judgment. My uneasiness about the Lutheranism I’ve been shaped by is part and parcel of my uneasiness about myself.

This raises many uncomfortable questions. Theologically, we may be resting right convictions on shaky foundations. Are we willing to rethink our “Lutheranism” down to the ground, rather than retreating into it like a fortress? Are we, the traditionalists, willing to be stripped of our theological self-confidence, to take seriously that we ourselves might be deeply confused about law and gospel, grace and works, faith and new life? Are we ready to ask whether our own various ways of managing the problem of historical consciousness and scriptural authority are actually viable for the long haul? And let’s not forget our old friend the false alternative: one of the ways in which contesting parties are often constrained by what they have in common is that both see two alternatives in a situation, both bad – for example, either a rigid and unfeeling faith or a warm and shapeless faith (though naturally, having chosen one of these, we will describe it more flatteringly).

But the questions get more personal: We who teach or preach, are we really feeding the flock with solid food? Can they live through the times ahead on what we are giving them? For all of us, are the forms of church life and Christian practice with which we’re comfortable sufficient, so that we just have to defend them and continue on? Or are recent events a wake-up call to rethink who we are and what we have become? Beginning with penitence means starting with the thought that we traditionalists ourselves might not be OK, that we probably aren’t OK, that we are in fact almost certainly our own worst enemies. The call we’re hearing may be a call not to go out of the ELCA, but to go deep into the Christian mystery, deeper than we’ve imagined going before now.

We do, after all, have clear teaching from our Lord that God does not allow catastrophes in order to show us that other people are wrong. “Those Lutherans who jumped off a cliff in Minneapolis, do you think that they were worse sinners than all the other Lutherans, because they made such a hash of things? I tell you, No; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (cf. Luke 13:1-5).

David Yeago
Coming soon : The Road Ahead (2): The Scriptural Christ.

David Yeago: The Way Forward (1) Penitence

September 23, 2009

I’ve been gratified by the positive responses to “In the Aftermath” – it seems that it struck a chord with some. In hope of continuing to be useful, I will be writing a series of posts on “The Way Forward,” elaborating on the concluding paragraphs of that essay, in which I briefly sketched a possible future for traditionalists in the ELCA. In this first post, I want to begin expounding the proposition that penitence is the gateway to any worthwhile traditionalist future.

In a sense this is obvious, or should be: as long as we carry the flesh around our necks, penitence is always and at every moment the only gateway to a worthwhile future, no matter where we happen to be standing. But as Aquinas might have said, what is most obvious in itself is not always most obvious to us. Therefore in this post I’ll back up and look at the meaning of penitence, and in the next post apply these thoughts to the situation at hand.

“Our Lord and Teacher Jesus Christ, when he said ‘Repent!’ intended that the whole life of believers be penitence.” There are still many Lutherans – fewer than there used to be, I fear – who would recognize this as the first of Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses. But how do we stand towards the claim it makes? Our whole life – penitence? I’m deliberately translating penitentia as “penitence” and not “repentance” to keep alive the Latin word’s association with penalty and pain, which is clearly alive for Luther. “For penalty/pain (pena) remains, as long as hatred of self (that is, true inner penitence) remains – until we enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Thesis 4).

To repeat the question: our whole life – penitence? Willing acceptance of a “penalty” – God’s No to our sin – as the “pain” of inward “self-hatred” – our whole life long? I have only my own observations to go on, but I have to say – this doesn’t sound like Lutheranism as I know it. I shudder to think what would happen if an ELCA ordination candidate told her committee that her goal in ministry was to teach parishioners to hate themselves. And the committee would be right to be spooked – Luther’s thinking has become so alien to us that anyone who parroted his words today would very likely mean something awful by them.

But why has the thinking become so alien to us? One reason is that we don’t think much about the corruption of sin. We tend to assume that “sinfulness” is inevitable and to that extent “normal,” and that the real problem is the condemnation of the law. Luther, however, was convinced that the gospel overcomes both the two great evils that plague sinners (cf. Against Latomus), both condemnation by God’s wrath and the inner corruption, the distortion of desire, the blindness and confusion, to which God has “handed over” those who do not acknowledge him as God (cf. Romans 1:24, 26, 28). The gospel overcomes condemnation all at once by forgiveness and at the same time initiates and sustains a protracted conflict with the flesh, a lifelong struggle in which there is, however, hope for genuine change and renewal.

If this is so, then corruption of the heart is not inevitable, though it is very difficult to combat. It is not “normal” but shameful. It betrays us into being and thinking, saying and doing ugly things that in our right minds we hate. God loves the spiritually ugly and makes them his children but his love intends to bring them to the beauty of holiness. His gospel brings us the gift of the Spirit, and promises that he will reward our struggle: “if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Romans 8:13).

Something like this lies behind Luther’s talk of life-long penitence. Yes, God accepts sinners into his fellowship and justifies the ungodly – that’s us — and in that we rejoice. But our rejoicing is inevitably accompanied by sorrow, because we are not all at once capable of receiving all that God is giving. There is still something hateful woven deep into the fabric even of the believing self, something that resists what God gives. The self-hatred of which Luther speaks is not morbid, however, but hopeful. It arises in the presence of the divine generosity that loves us and wants us to shine. It is a steady and militant refusal to settle for less than the glory and honor with which God means to crown us in Christ.

There is a specifically Christian sense of our situation that goes with this spirituality of penitence. God has started something holy in each believer, but that new thing is like a oil-lamp on a raft tossing on an ocean of craving and confusion – the Old Adam, the “flesh.” Christ can walk across the sea to bring oil for the lamp and save the raft from capsizing. He is the master even of this ocean. But our ability to stand against it is as tenuous as Peter’s, always dependent on his word and always threatened by distraction. We are not hopeless – given Christ. But we can’t trust ourselves, neither our passions nor our reasoning, which is subverted by our cravings in so many cunning ways. At every moment, from every juncture, a broad and easy road stretches out attractively towards destruction. The narrow road is hard for our eyes to see and uninviting when we find it. We lean towards destruction.

This is why Christians of old schooled themselves to self-distrustful watchfulness and self-examination with a rigor that we tend to find, well, scary. And this is why penitence is always and at every moment the only gateway to a worthwhile future, no matter where we happen to be standing.

Next post: applying these thoughts to the situation of traditionalists in the ELCA.

David Yeago
(The “by Michael Root” just means it went through his computer.)

The Spectrum of Options: Staying Together as Much as Possible (Implementation 4)

September 21, 2009

(Not quite what was promised in the last post)

The “option of maximum uniformity” outlined below preserves the institutional structure of the ELCA. Since congregations already can turn down any pastor proposed to them by the synod, no structural adjustment is necessary. Dissent would be marginalized. Respect for “bound consciences” would have no institutional embodiment.

But what are the alternatives? To describe those requires both institutional and theological creativity. Most immediately, synods could be allowed to adopt policies of their own on ordaining and permitting congregations to call partnered gay or lesbian clergy. More radically, congregations that disagreed with their synods on these matters could be allowed to re-affiliate with another synod (thus blurring the geographical definition of our synods). Seminary boards, with input from faculty and constituencies, would need to make decisions about policies that govern such matters as student housing. Other changes might be appropriate. The important point is that such an option must “provide space” for those who cannot in good faith cooperate with the proposals adopted by the Assembly.

Is such an option worthwhile? That depends on how one sees the present situation and how one understands the commitment to respect ‘bound consciences.’ For those who see the actions as false teaching, some form of such an option is necessary if they are to remain in the ELCA with integrity. For those who support those actions, such an option would be the decisive, irreplaceable sign that they in fact wish to ‘respect’ those who cannot agree; that they in fact, and not just in word, wish to continue in whatever communion is possible with those who dissent.

The price of such an option would be high. The ELCA would tend to become a federation of synods in less than full communion with each other. Some synods could become the site of bitter argument. If one believes that dissent will die down on its own, that people will come to embrace the new policies in time, then one might judge such an option as unneeded.

But could the ELCA, amidst the swathe of denominations tearing themselves apart on this issue, provide an example of a community within which each truly seeks to bear the burdens of the other; which stays together as much as possible in the midst of division? Could the ELCA embody as a church the sort of spiritual outlook that David Yeago recommends in his piece on this blog? The details of such an embodiment would take time to work out; the intent to pursue something along such lines needs to be stated soon, however, before irrevocable commitments are made on both sides.

As I closed the last posting, I will close this one. Much depends on the attitudes of those who dissent. More, however, depends on what is said and done in the next months by those who are responsible for how the Assembly’s policies are implemented. Will those who supported the change speak out in favor of truly providing a space for those who dissent?

(Pressures of teaching, etc., mean that there will probably be no new posting until Monday, Sept. 28, at the earliest.)

Michael Root

The Spectrum of Options: The Option of Maximum Unity and Uniformity (Implementation 3)

September 16, 2009

(I am continuing to write a series of posts on implementation because I believe important questions are still unanswered. How they are answered will determine the shape of the ELCA for years, if not decades.)

The Church Council and Conference of Bishops now have before them choices about the implementation of the ministry proposals that fall along a spectrum from, at one extreme, a maximum of unity and uniformity and, at the other, a maximum of diversity and respect for bound consciences. These two are, I think, inversely proportional. To increase one is to decrease the other. Choices must be made. Each options has its benefits and drawbacks. A variety of points along the spectrum may be possible.

The wind seems to be blowing toward the maximum of unity and uniformity. Vision and Expectations would be revised and applied uniformly throughout the church. The expectation would be communicated that these standards are to accepted by all synods and candidacy committees. No provision would be made for a bishop, synod, or candidacy committee to express a ‘bound conscience’ and opt out. The only provision for ‘bound consciences’ would be the right of congregations to refuse to call any particular pastor (a right they already have). Respecting ‘bound consciences’ would be a pastoral matter for pastors, bishops, and the presiding bishop, dealt with on an ad hoc and individual basis.

For those who support the change, this option is obviously attractive. It seeks to preserve the ELCA as it has been. If one believes, as some speakers at the Assembly seemed to, that opposition to the changes were a matter of ‘fear’ or simple lack of acquaintance with the pastoral work that partnered gay or lesbian clergy can do, then one could hope that as we live into the new arrangement many of the opponents will come to accept the change.

Even apart from support for the change, one can advance ecclesiological arguments for such uniformity. A single ministerium, in which a pastor can serve anywhere in the church, has been an important force for unity in the ELCA. Such a united ministerium requires a single set of disciplinary standards. Allowing synods to opt out on the basis of conscience might create ‘no go’ zones, strongholds of opposition, prolonging the life of such opposition (witness the experience of the Church of Sweden and the Episcopal Church in allowing dioceses to opt out of the ordination of women). Such arguments are real and should be recognized.

The drawbacks of such an option, however, are also real. Most directly, they are incompatible with the spirit and, probably, the letter of the Assembly’s actions. No comprehensive theological and biblical argument for a uniform acceptance of partnered gay and lesbian clergy was offered. What was offered was an argument for a diversity of practice, ‘structured flexibility,’ on the basis of bound conscience. To reduce ‘structured flexibility’ to nothing more than the capacity of a congregation not to call a particular pastor flies in the face of what was proposed to the Assembly. The exact language of the Report and Recommendations should be remembered (lines 281-284, in relation to the ‘bound conscience’ resolution): “This step recognizes that agreement in this church on this matter does not exist. Therefore, decisions about policy that serve only the interests of one or another group will not be acceptable. If this church intends to move toward change or to decline to change, this step commits it to doing so in ways that respect the convictions and provide space for the faithful witness of all.” To ‘provide space’ in this way may not be compatible with the united ministerium the ELCA has known in the past, but that was a reason for voting against the proposals, not an argument for now ignoring this aspect of what the Assembly accepted.

There are also more abstract ecclesiological arguments against this option. In the ‘interdependent’ polity of the ELCA , congregations, synods, and national church are all ‘church’ in a theological sense. In a more normal time, it makes sense for the national church to set ordination standards. But we face, as the Task Force said, a deadlock on an important matter. To say that only congregations can exercise conscience on this issue, that synods must simply fall in line with the national policy, denies synods any voice. Historically, synods, analogous to dioceses, have a much stronger claim to be ‘church’ than national denominations, whose theological status is more tenuous. The victor of such an outlook, in the long run, is always congregationalism.

There is also a pragmatic argument against this option. For those who oppose the changes, this option simply solidifies the church in false teaching. It may harden the opposing fronts in the church. Calls for free-standing synods will be all the more attractive. How much opposition will develop is hard to predict, but I would guess that without some provision to respect the ‘bound consciences’ of groups other than congregations, proposals will arise in synods to instruct bishops to refuse to sign the call papers of partnered gay or lesbian clergy and to instruct candidacy committees to apply the unrevised text of Vision and Expectations. If such proposals pass, how does the national church respond?

There has been much talk of unity in the weeks since the Assembly. My colleague David Yeago has made a plea for opponents of the changes to live with those with whom they decisively disagree. The question of the moment for the ELCA, however, is how those who carried the day in Minneapolis will chose to live in the ELCA with those who cannot in good conscience accept these changes.

(A post on the “maximum diversity and respect for consciences” option will be made in the next few days.)

Michael Root

The Gap between Theological Argument and Assembly Action (Implementation 2)

September 14, 2009

An important source of the confusion that now faces the ELCA on sexuality lies in the way the ministry proposals were altered as they moved from the Task Force through the Church Council and to the Churchwide Assembly. The proposals as adopted were significantly different from those proposed by the Task Force. What was adopted was not what the Task Force had argued for and cannot be justified on the basis of the Task Force’s study. My sense is that these changes were not widely noted and they help account for the vague feeling among those who oppose the changes that they have been snookered.

The Task Force did not produce a comprehensive theological and biblical argument for the acceptance of same-sex blessing or the ordination of persons in such partnerships. Rather, they argued from the presence of diversely bound consciences in the church to an officially recognized diversity of practice. The ministry proposals as they came from the Task Force fit this argument. They would have allowed both congregations and synods to affirm same-sex blessings (or, one presumes, not to do so). On ordination, the proposal stated: “synods, bishops, congregations, candidacy committees and other involved in the candidacy process and in the process of extending calls will be free to act according to their convictions regarding both approving or disapproving in candidacy and the extending or not extending of a call” to persons in such partnerships.

The problem with this proposal, of course, is that it would have been a procedural nightmare. Conflicts of conscience would inevitably develop and then the question would arise how to adjudicate such conflicts. This perception should have led to the conclusion that the argument from bound consciences was a bad argument. Instead, the ministry proposals were streamlined before they got to the Assembly. The question of same-sex blessings was to be settled only by congregations, not by synods. All the language about various persons and bodies being free to act according to conviction was eliminated. What was adopted was much closer to a unqualified acceptance of same-sex blessing and the ordination of persons in such partnerships. The only qualifications are undefined references to structured flexibility and respect for bound consciences, and the Kusserow amendment that provisions are to be made for those who believe these actions are mistaken. The initial ELCA press release and the recent news article in The Lutheran speak as if this provision will amount to nothing more than the right of a congregation not to call a pastor it does not want to call.

The proposals as they went to the Assembly could be justified only by an argument that the Task Force chose not to make: a theological defense of homosexual practice. A gap now exists between the Social Statement and the Ministry Proposals. The argument of the Social Statement requires significant diversity of practice, shaped by diversely bound consciences. The Ministry Proposals look in a different direction, toward a more uniform practice, with some exceptions for individual and congregational conscience, although the proposals are sufficiently vague to permit a wide variety of actual policies. Whether the ELCA allows the theological argument offered by the Task Force to shape the implementation of the Ministry Proposals is a decisive question for the immediate future.

Michael Root