Archive for October, 2009

What Was Decided? The April ‘Clarifications’ and Keeping Faith

October 31, 2009

I wanted to summarize my thoughts on the recent discussions about the changes made in April to the sexuality resolutions and their present implications for the policy revisions. The result was far too long for a post, so it is a posted as a page to the right (or just click here). Thanks to Prs. Keith Hunsinger and Marshall Hahn for very helpful comments. They helped clarify my thinking and made me go back and look at the texts again more closely. (When all else fails, see what was actually said).

Michael Root


Important Comment

October 28, 2009

The comment of Pastor Keith Hunsinger (here), a member of the ELCA Church Council, deserves notice.

Policy Revisions: The Incoherence of our Decisions

October 27, 2009

Now that the proposals for policy revision following from the Assembly have been released, we can get a clearer picture of what has happened and where we now are. This is my sense, based on an examination of the texts, not on any insider knowledge.

The Task Force documents had within them a basic incoherence. On the one hand, the argument from bound conscience could not justify any particular national policy on same-sex blessings or the ordination of partnered gay or lesbian clergy. At most, it could justify allowing all – synods, bishops, candidacy committees, seminary faculties, congregations – to act as conscience dictated. And the Task Force proposed just such a policy in their Step Four, which related to ‘structured flexibility’. On the other hand, their Step Two on ordained ministry sounded more like the adoption of a national policy that would accept the ordination of partnered gay and lesbian persons. Because the Task Force had decided that the substantive question about homosexuality was insoluble in this church at this time, it made no comprehensive theological and biblical argument for such a national policy. I would guess that the Task Force itself was not clear on how all that it was arguing and proposing hung together

The proposals of the Task Force for widespread freedom to follow conscience may have been unworkable. In April, the Church Council removed the incoherence and altered the proposals. Because the changes were labeled merely editorial, their importance was not noticed. The listing of who got to follow conscience was removed from the structured flexibility resolutions. The proposal was now clearly oriented to the adoption of a uniform national policy on the ordination of partnered gay and lesbian persons, with the bound conscience argument becoming a limited provision for individuals who disagreed. The difficulty was that the Task Force had not made any argument that would justify such a uniform national policy. The ministry proposals had now floated free from the Task Force Report. One reason the debate at the Assembly was so unfocused is that the Task Force Report and its argument from bound conscience were mostly beside the point to what was actually on the floor. When the time came for decision, the Task Force Report was a misleading distraction.

Our situation now is that we have a set of policy decisions on a churchwide set of ordination standards that have no foundation in the Sexuality Social Statement, which declared the church at an impasse on the question of homosexuality. If anything, the Social Statement would justify a much broader set of provisions for bound conscience.

Policy Revisions: Toleration, if You Don’t Get in the Way

October 25, 2009

The proposed policies to implement the decisions of the Churchwide Assembly have been placed on the ELCA website with no fanfare. There was no news release or email informing all rostered leaders. If you go to the ELCA website without knowing where to look, you will have great trouble finding the texts. (They can be found here). Some first thoughts.

What is being proposed?
1. The revision of Vision and Expectations, which states expectations for clergy behavior, treats marriage and “publicly accountable, life-long, monogamous, same-gender relationships” as functionally equivalent. Whatever difference may be asserted elsewhere between marriage and such relations, none exists here.
2. The more significant document relates to revisions to the call process. Here is where the ‘bound conscience’ promises must be kept. How is this to be done?:
a. As many decisions as possible are defined as strictly procedural: a congregation’s registration of a candidate for ministry; a synod’s release of a candidate for transfer to another synod, a bishop’s signature of a letter attesting a call. As merely procedural, these actions are held to be outside the area in which appeals to conscience are appropriate.
b. Synods and candidacy committees can “state openly their diverse convictions” and “express its general understanding of what will best serve the mission of Christ in the places and times for which they have decision making responsibility.” Candidates who did not fit that understanding would be urged to transfer to a synod where they would be more welcome.
c. A synod cannot, however, turn down a candidate simply on the grounds of being in a same-sex relationship.

What does this mean?
1. By insisting that the bishop’s signature on a call letter is merely procedural, the proposal eliminates any synodical action that would block calls to pastors in same-sex relations. Every synod must be open to all such pastors.
2. A synodical candidacy committee can only urge a candidate to transfer. If a candidate refuses to do so, the committee must ignore their consciences and overlook the sexuality question. One might ask: what candidate would refuse to transfer? It is easy to imagine situations in which a candidate would be reluctant to transfer. Candidates may not want to leave their home congregations, which might be supporting their seminary education, to take up membership in a new synod that would accept them. Or candidates may discover their orientation far into the process and not want to begin with a new candidacy committee. Or a candidate may just want to make a point.

What is missing?
1 Nothing is said about protection of diversity of opinion in the candidacy process. Can a candidacy committee refuse a candidate who expresses strong judgments on these questions? Nothing is said. A statement that a candidate is not to be refused because of their bound conscience on such matters will not stop a committee from resorting to a standard euphemism, such as ‘rigidity,’ to reject the candidate, but the candidate would at least have a published standard to which to appeal.
2 Most notably, nothing is said about what would happen if some, out of bound conscience, refuse to cooperate. If a synod passes a resolution instructing its bishop to refuse to sign letters of call to pastors in same-sex relations or if a candidacy committee denies a student who refuses to transfer, what then happens?

What is being proposed is toleration of dissenters, but only as long as they do not get in the way.

The New Roman-Anglican Initiative: Significant for Lutherans?

October 21, 2009

The initiative of Rome to receive bodies of Anglicans, priests and laity, and permit them a ongoing corporate existence as “personal ordinariates” with distinct traditions may be of great significance for Lutherans and for all Western Christians – or it may not. (For details, go to the source and read the Vatican statement). In short, structures will be set up within the Catholic Church whereby parishes and priests would be under an ‘ordinary’ (the Vatican statement says a priest or a bishop) from the Anglican tradition. Such ordinariates would preserve Anglican liturgy and spirituality. Their priests could be married, but not the bishops. Anglicans could thus enter communion with Rome, while preserving many aspects of Anglican worship and spiritual life.

The apostolic constitution that will set the details for how such personal ordinariates will function has not yet been made public, which accounts for some of the present uncertainty. The term ‘personal ordinariate’ is not in the Code of Canon Law. Just how much independence will the personal ordinariates have? Larger uncertainties about the significance of this new move, however, can only be clarified by time and further developments. Will large groups of catholic-minded Anglicans who so far have not left their churches now move in this direction or will the ordinariates remain small? Will such personal ordinariates be intellectually and spiritually lively or will they become museums of Anglo-Catholicism of a particular date? Will these ordinariates be strong only in a few countries (perhaps England) or will they gain a foothold in the US and, more importantly, Africa? There is no way of answering these questions now.

Some see this initiative as anti-ecumenical, but that is by no means clear. The personal ordinariates could be a testing ground for just what the slogan ‘united, but not absorbed’ (used in the Vatican statement) might mean as a description of unity with Rome. Of great significance in the Vatican statement is the comment that the ordinariates might set up houses of study within Catholic seminaries so that their future priests would be schooled in the Anglican tradition. The ordinariates are thus potentially permanent. At the very least, these structures will be a sign of Rome’s willingness to accept diversity in its own ranks. The Anglican liturgical and spiritual traditions are being accepted as legitimately Catholic. At best, they could be a bridge between the Anglican and Catholic traditions, keeping up a conversation with the rest of Anglicanism and mediating aspects of the Anglican tradition to other Catholics.

Might there be a model here for catholic-minded Lutherans? Maybe. There is not at present a sizable body of interested Lutherans as there is a body of interested Anglicans, so the question is somewhat moot. (The Vatican statement refers to requests from twenty to thirty bishops – presumably Anglican bishops – for something like the new provision.) More significantly, Lutheran dissent from Rome has been essentially theological and doctrinal. The Vatican statement notes that the Anglicans seeking communion with Rome “share the common Catholic faith as it is expressed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church and accept the Petrine primacy as something Christ willed for the Church.” Some, but not so many, Lutherans would be willing to go this far. And among Lutherans who would go that far, how many would prefer a ‘personal ordinariate’ to an integration into the wider Catholic Church, with a greater opportunity to witness to what is of permanent Catholic value in the Lutheran tradition?

So, the Anglican ‘personal ordinariates’ may be having their fifteen minutes of fame, or we may be seeing the start of an ecumenical re-arrangement of possibilities. Time will tell.

The Way Forward (3): The Bible in the Church

October 13, 2009

According to the Formula of Concord, the “Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments” are “the pure clear fountain of Israel, which is the only true norm by which all teachers and teaching are to be judged” (Solid Declaration, Rule and Norm). Our attention easily locks onto the description of Scripture as the “only true norm” in doctrinal controversy. That’s the contested Protestant bit, the “Scripture-principle.” It’s been endlessly discussed since the Reformation, and entered deeply into Protestant identity.

It has also been viewed with increasing skepticism since the Enlightenment, not without reason. It just doesn’t seem to have worked out very well. Conflicts don’t actually seem to be resolved by biblical interpretation in the Protestant churches; controversies seem more likely to generate schism or else the formation of ongoing opposed parties within ecclesiastical communities. Hasn’t any unity Protestants have enjoyed really been brought about by state-church regimes or capacious denominational structures, rather than a meeting of the minds over Scripture?

Notice, though, that the Formula does not present Scripture only as a norm to be appealed to in controversy. Before Scripture is norm, it is the “pure, clear fountain of Israel,” the source of the water of life. A fountain is different from a norm; its work is prior to any outbreak of controversy, any pressing need for judgment. A fountain gives life and provides cleansing. Its waters sustain travelers, clear dust from human eyes, and turn deserts into fruitful fields. Unless the church is constantly being enlivened and formed by Scripture in this way, appeals to the Bible as norm and judge will be operating in a vacuum.

No method of resolving disputes within the church can function without the support of an underlying sensus fidelium, a common mind among the faithful. Even a teaching office on Roman Catholic lines can only settle disputes successfully if there is a shared perception that the office deserves respect. This can never be wholly a matter of recognizing the formal authority of the bishop or the Pope, as in the slogan “Rome has spoken – case closed.” It has to include a perception that the actual decisions made by the teaching office reliably cohere with central Christian beliefs and practices. Only so can a sense be maintained that obedience to the teaching office is an authentic form of discipleship. But for that to be the case, the teachers and the faithful must share a common formation in faith and life. They can only meet, so to speak, if they live in the same Christian universe.

The root of our problems with authority in the ELCA, I would suggest, is the confusion, weakening, and consequent fragmentation of the sensus fidelium, the common mind of the faithful. This confusion and weakness are by no means all on one side. We’ve all been affected by the biblical illiteracy, thin catechesis, clueless educational programs, and unfocused preaching that are widespread (I’m not saying universal) in our denomination. Seeking scriptural resolution to a passionate controversy on top of such weakness, confusion, and fragmentation is like trying to ride up the glass mountain in the fairy tale: no matter how strong your theological horse or how well you ride it, you’re never going to get traction.

This is one reason I’ve been suggesting that the way forward has to be a renewed formative engagement with Scripture as pure, clear fountain. We need to set the Bible loose in the ELCA; we need to uncap the hydrant and let the waters pour where they will. We need to do this not defensively, nor simply in a new round of argument about sexual ethics, but with the air of people discovering treasure in a field. The new mantra in the ELCA is that our unity is in Christ, not in theology or moral teaching. A confused mantra – but why not respond: “Good – then let’s go looking for him. Let’s dig up the field of the Scriptures to find him.”

I heard a couple of words in church last Sunday that encouraged me: “The word of God is living and active” (Heb 4:12) and “With human beings it is impossible, but not with God; for all things are possible with God” (Mk 10:27). When we let the Bible loose, we don’t really know what’s going to happen next. But it’s not just our own power we have to reckon with. And we’ve just about run out of other things to try.

On ‘Heresy’

October 10, 2009

A small dust-up has occurred over the word ‘heresy.’ The word was used at the Lutheran CORE meeting by Bp, Paull Spring (here) and such talk has been criticized here by Gettysburg Seminary president Michael Cooper-White. Both men seek to be faithful leaders in the church and my contacts with both have attested to that intent. I wish to cast aspersions on neither, though I am closer to Bp. Spring’s outlook than President Cooper-White’s.

There is a problem with the word ‘heresy.’ The classical definition of heresy is ‘obstinate error,’ error maintained in the face of authoritative correction. This is the definition in the present Catholic Code of Canon Law (c. 751) and the definition elaborated in the 17th century by the greatest of the Lutheran scholastics, John Gerhard. To be a heretic, Gerhard said, a person must not only hold an error that “directly conflicts [impingat] with the very foundation of the faith,” but must join to the error “wickedness and obstinacy, through which, though frequently admonished, he obstinately defends his error” (references below).

The concept ‘heresy’ presupposes beliefs about the faith ‘once and for all delivered to the saints’ (Jude 3), about the church as bound to that deposit of the faith, and about the role of rightly constituted doctrinal authority. Those beliefs become effective only in connection with a set of practices of pastoral admonition and obedience. (Gerhard takes up ‘heresy’ under the topic: De pugnantibus cum ministerio – Of those doing battle with the ministry).

Are these assumptions and practices to be found in the ELCA at present? If a pastor or professor avoids explicitly denying a few central doctrines and uses some standard Lutheran shibboleths, is there anything that would call down doctrinal admonition from a bishop? Does the ELCA as a church body understand itself as ‘bound’ to the deposit of teaching on faith and morals? If so, how could the unanimous consensus of the tradition on a foundational matter of Christian ethics be overturned by 55% of one Assembly?

More fundamental than the question whether the ELCA has fallen into heresy is the question whether the ELCA has become a church in which heresy has become an unusable concept. Heresy as obstinate error requires authoritative teaching and correction against which to be obstinate. The presence of heresy is a serious problem; the impossibility of heresy is catastrophe.

Michael Root

English for Gerhard quotations in Heinrich Schmid, The Doctrinal Theology of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. 3rd ed. Trans. Charles A. Hay and Henry E. Jacobs. (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1961), p. 615.
Latin for these passages, Johann Gerhard, Loci Theolgici , marginal reference XIII, 214, 222.

The Way Forward (2): The Scriptural Christ, part 4

October 8, 2009

My students know that my orbit around a point is often more like that of a comet than a planet, and that has probably been evident in these last few posts. What I’ve hoped to do is sketch some background against which the challenge of re-encountering the scriptural Christ might stand out more clearly.

Our relationship to Jesus Christ is inseparable from our relationship to the Bible. If we want to take hold of Christ by faith, then we must take hold of the garment of Scripture in which he has been clothed for us.  A renewed encounter with Jesus necessarily involves a new encounter with the Bible.

If traditionalists (or anyone, for that matter) are to take the present crisis in the ELCA as an occasion for repentance and renewal, therefore, we need to become actively dissatisfied with our present relationship to the Bible (as part of our penitence) and actively set about to discover anew what the Bible is and could be to us. This is a project for all of us. There is an element that scholars like me can contribute, but the rubber hits the road where teachers (not just the “rostered” ones) and preachers stand up to set forth the Scriptures to the people of God.

There is no salvation for us in schemes of “distinctively Lutheran hermeneutics” [“hermeneutics” = “theory and rules of interpretation,” for those who haven’t learned this jargon]. The very idea is sectarian: if Lutheranism is a movement of reform within the universal church, then it ought to be possible to make the case for Lutheran teaching on the basis of an ecumenical hermeneutics. Moreover, the temptation is overwhelming to take “Lutheran hermeneutics” practically to mean a way of guaranteeing that biblical interpretation will never disturb our ideas of Lutheranism.

What we need is not a unified hermeneutic (for which we will wait forever) but a thousand flowers blooming.  Pre-modern exegesis was wise in seeing the unity of scriptural interpretation not in a unitary method but in a shared focus on Jesus Christ and a common acknowledgment of the “rule of the faith” as summarized in creed and catechism. We need to take practical advantage of recent work that has made the exegesis of the ancient church far more accessible and intelligible than it has been for centuries. We need to explore the theological and homiletic possibilities of approaches that treat biblical interpretation as primarily literary analysis rather than historical research.  We need to ask anew about the role of imagination in scriptural interpretation, not only “What does it mean to read the Bible imaginatively?” but also “How do we involve the congregation imaginatively with the Bible?”

Diversity, experiment, risk-taking, and an element of godly play, will all be to the good if three rules are observed.

First, we can trust the church’s tradition enough to assume that we are on the wrong track if we find ourselves contradicting the creeds or the catechism. The risen Christ and the Holy Spirit surely did not wait around for you or me (or even Martin Luther) to come along to get the basics across to Christ’s bride, the church. This is the ancient principle of reading Scripture according to the “rule of the faith.”

Second, the direction of reading has to be into the biblical texts not away from them. If we are excited by the words, and drawn into the intricate interplay of the words in particular texts and across the canon, then we are moving in the right direction. If we can draw others into a passion for following and grappling with the words, then we are doing a good work.

The last thing the contemporary church needs is more big ideas and vague uplift. The last thing our imaginations need is to be launched (yet again) into the blue skies of religious fancy and wish-fulfillment. What we need is to get down on the ground and wrestle with the God-provided words of the scriptures like Jacob wrestled with the angel, all night long until the break of day. That’s much harder than playing with ideas. The words fight back; they resist us; they have sharp edges and they hurt. We may walk away limping – but we will be Israel.

The third rule is simply enough that the center of our interest in the Bible must be Jesus Christ. Not ideas about Jesus, not something we suppose that Jesus means or stands for, but Jesus Christ himself, the particular person in whose singular flesh God has put the whole creation to rights once and for all. The real test of every interpretive venture is the Jesus-test: do we come back around to him, do we find ourselves more attached to him, do we see something more of the whole fullness that dwells in him, as a result of this exegesis, this reading of this or that text?

Before long I’ll be posting some guidance on resources for facing these challenges, but the most important thing is actually to read the Bible more intensively and extensively, with the rules of engagement just mentioned actively in mind.

Implementation (5): Who Participates In the Discussion?

October 7, 2009

In the ministry recommendations adopted at the August Churchwide Assembly, the ELCA bought a pig in a poke. General principles were accepted, but no details were provided. What would be the criteria for recognizing a “publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous same-gender relationship”? Just how would ‘bound consciences,’ the key to the entire argument from the Task Force, be respected? Who gets to have a bound conscience?

The latest ELCA news release (here) notes a discussion by the Conference of Bishops of a revised draft of Vision and Expectations. The revision of this document will be the most important element of the implementation. The Rev. Stanley Olson, head of the Vocation and Education unit, said: “We will be well-served if there are (many) people reading these.” The news release reported also that “he welcomed comments on the draft changes from throughout the ELCA.”

Missing from the news release was any information about whether the draft would be shared throughout the church, with candidacy committees, with seminary faculties, with synod councils, or any other group. No link was provided to a copy of the draft. Especially if, as appears to be the case, decisions on the revision will not be made this fall but postponed until next spring, there is no reason not to have a wide discussion. That can occur, of course, only if the text is shared.

The question of who is involved in the discussion is not trivial. If implementation is decided by the Church Council and Conference of Bishops after discussion only among themselves, that will speak volumes about our ecclesiology.

Michael Root

[Note, Oct 10 – This post does seem to manifest too much suspicion, for which I apologize. Because the news release did not explicitly say that the draft would be available to the public on the web, I pressed the issue. A problem of these sorts of debates is the way they can be spiritually and intellectually deforming for all.]

The Way Forward (2): The Scriptural Christ, part 3

October 6, 2009

In my last post, I suggested that our difficulty in reading Scripture as a unified whole might be one factor undermining the depth and vitality of our witness to Jesus Christ. The difficulty arises from modern historical study of the Bible. Historical research tends to break down the unities in our minds by focusing on the real-life particulars of which they’re composed, and how they got that way. If you study “the ancient Greek city” historically, you’ll soon become aware of how different various Greek cities were, and your generalizations about “the” Greek city will be challenged.

I have no intention of rejecting historical study of the Bible or losing the knowledge it has yielded. Are we then stuck? I don’t think so. One question that’s seldom been asked until recently is “Why did pre-modern Christians read the Bible as they did?” Too often the answer has been assumed: “Of course they read the Bible in weird ways – they were ignorant and primitive.” Ironically, though, this generalization survives historical scrutiny just as little as generalizations about ancient Greek cities.

Put the question another way: did pre-modern Christians read the Bible differently than we do because they didn’t know things that we know? Quite a lot of research over the past half century suggests that the answer is No. The church fathers certainly didn’t have the historical methods or knowledge that we have. But it seems unlikely that any amount of information about the history of the biblical texts would have fazed them. Their confidence in the unity of Scripture rested not on a lack of information but on confidence in the providence of God, who rules over all the contingent messiness of history to achieve his ends.

The issues here are surprisingly parallel to those in current debates about God and evolution. Darwinian village atheists like Richard Dawkins and some proponents of Intelligent Design seem to agree that a state of affairs in the world must either be the outcome of describable processes in space and time or the outcome of God’s designing activity, but can’t be both.

This is a false alternative, because God is not one more cause on the same plane as others. God is the Creator, the reason the whole cosmic and historical process and everything in it exists at all. If something happens by accident, he’s the reason the accident is real rather than not real. If something happens by human will and design, he’s the reason that human thinking and willing are real and have real outcomes. Such a God doesn’t need to interrupt the cosmic or the historical process to achieve his goals (though he can if he chooses). He rules over all processes because he decides what is real and what is not.

My guess is that most ELCA readers of this blog accept the scientific consensus on evolution and believe that God nonetheless guided it. There seems no reason why we couldn’t take the same attitude to the Bible. The biblical texts developed in complex and diverse ways over centuries through a messy and tangled history in which all sorts of influences, interests, attitudes, and events played a role. And the Lord God of Israel sat enthroned over those roiling waters (cf. Ps. 29:10), and worked in ways our minds cannot trace to design a canon of testimony to his Son.

The Word Incarnate is a particular human being, with a known name and a known story, in whom nevertheless the whole fullness of the divine mystery dwells bodily (Col 2:9). The word of testimony is like him: it is a body of texts with a clear center and outline that opens up ever-new depths of meaning as we attend to its words, its manifold dimensions, its web of interconnections, and not least its internal tensions. Everything we have learned about the texts from historical research is potential grist for the mill. But when we reckon with the biblical canon as a gift of God’s providence we define exegesis as something more than a historical task. We admit the possibility that the Bible has other ways of signifying, other dimensions of Christ-attesting meaning, that can’t be caught in the nets of historical research.

In my next post, I will conclude these “Scriptural Christ” posts on a more practical note.

P.S. Mentioning evolution on the internet can be like leaving a carcass lying on the prairie. Before you know it, an immense crowd of creatures will gather to quarrel over it and pick its bones. Let me therefore say in advance that comments which would push the discussion away from Jesus, Scripture, and renewal in the church towards an argument about evolution will be refused by the Management.