Policy Revisions: The Incoherence of our Decisions

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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.

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21 Responses to “Policy Revisions: The Incoherence of our Decisions”

  1. Lawrence804 Says:

    A stark analysis. If true, traditionalists who wanted to hang on for a while and see what happened have a lot less breathing room than they thought they did.

  2. Harvey Mozolak Says:

    in the ship of the ELCA you can have your own anchors if you like and they can certainly be bound to you, just when you toss them over the side to stay in one place… Harvey Mozolak

  3. Jerry Kliner Says:

    This is as many of us feared (pre-CWA): not “breathing room” in which the denomination could breathe and rest (as was put forth by many seeking a way to “journey faithfully together”) but more like a conquest for “living space” for one particular party within the ELCA. The sad thing is that many of us who rang the alarm bell were, and continue to be, called anything from “alarmist” to “hysterical.”

    The end is and was predictable and easy to see, if we dare to be “as cunning as serpents and as innocent as doves.” There never was any intent for “local option,” or “respecting bound consciences.” The ELCA was sold a false bill of goods and they bought it.

    As for myself, well my conscience will not let me remain for the “after-dinner show.” I weep for the ELCA, though I cannot fathom how some actually hold out much hope to change the course she has set for herself.

  4. David Charlton Says:

    My impression is that those who supported the policy revisions thought they were voting for the same local option proposal that was defeated in 2005. They think that the ELCA will merely be allowing an exception for those congregations that wish to call someone in a same sex relationship, but that apart from that, the teaching and practice of the church will not change. I wonder what will happen when they realize that the new policy is much more radical than the one defeated in 2005. The policy of the ELCA has changed, but now those congregations which desire not to call a person in a same sex relationship are promised a local option.

    What amazes me is the boldness of the task force. “You reject a local option for the minority? How about a local option for the majority?”

  5. Pastor Keith A. Hunsinger Says:

    Dr Root is spot on in his analysis of what happened in the Church Council. The simple politics in the room quickly decided what some of the staff had publically wanted all along; full, unfettered acceptance of gay marriage and gay clergy.

    Were the proposals unworkable in a real world sense? Probably so. But the staff, who felt strongly pro-change did not want to do the work necessary to even try. What occured was a blend of bad writing and proactive people in positions of authority and influence.

    The folks in the council room were told we were only voting to “transmit” the proposals. I had argued that the new language made the proposals more radical and troublesome then first proposed but my voice was unheard.

  6. Lawrence804 Says:

    Bottom line, then (as discerned from the content of both of these Policy Revision posts and the comments): the only bulwark remaining is the ability of a local congregation to refuse to call someone to be its pastor. That may hold for a time, maybe a reasonably long time. One would hope so, and one wants to trust the good faith and decency of people who pledge that this won’t change. And fully mean what they say.

    But eventually, in spite of all the best intentions, will the pressure of the wave begin to build and then become irresistible?

  7. Important Comment « Lutherans Persisting Says:

    […] By Michael Root The comment of Pastor Keith Hunsinger (here), a member of the ELCA Church Council, deserves […]

  8. David Hunter Says:

    If these revisions are adopted and Synods are not permitted to have a conscience,then every congregation that is unwilling to conform to the new policy needs to get very good legal counsel as to the defensibility of a discrimination lawsuit.I realize that this is not the manner in which we want to act,but as someone once said,”It is most certainly true.”

  9. Rev. Judson Merrell Says:

    Pr. Hunter,

    I have to agree…as it is written now, I see nothing but discrimination against heterosexuals who do abide by V&E. Furthermore, having listened to many people in the congregation I serve, I truly believe if this becomes an issue they will pull out of the ELCA. Therefore they would then not have to worry about the discrimination issue.

  10. Steven D. McGinley Says:

    Could there really be discrimination lawsuits? I am genuinely curious.

    • Michael Root Says:

      I personally find this dubious. The ‘free exercise of religion’ clause of the 1st amendment should cover this. But I am not a lawyer.

    • Pr. Rafe Allison Says:

      As Dr. Root points out, I’m no lawyer either. But I have to wonder, IF the nationwide “expression” of our denomination blesses and endorses the blessings of same-sex unions, AND the hands of the regional (synodical) “expression” of our denomination has it’s hands tied on such matters… how much legal protection then does that leave for the local “expression” in a single, individual congregation and it’s pastor??? If government seeks to understand what our religious body has to say on this matter, and the “institution” says, “Hey, no prob!” do we then, as individual pastors and congregations who BELONG to and share constitutional governance with the nationwide body… do we then have legal protection to express a theology and practice that differs/dissents from our “parent” body??? I understand legal protection in the case where we speak “with one voice” as denomination, congregation, and pastor(s)… ALL THREE. BUT, I’m not sure where legal protections go when we stand in defiance of the offical policy decisions of our own denomination. Perhaps someone with more legal talent and insight than me could help clarify where we stand???

    • Brian Says:

      I’m not a lawyer either, but my wife is one. She routinely defends her organization from all sort of things, especially since her industry has been targeted by trial lawyers.

      Just because you may be in the right doesn’t mean someone else might not sue to either make a point or drive you into bankruptcy defending against a lawsuit. *IF* is it true the primary points of the secular supporters of this change in the ELCA are to ether change the church or destroy it, I have little confidence they would restrain themselves because of something called the constitution.

      With the hate crimes legislation signed yesterday, it might be a matter of time before an experimental lawsuit is filled somewhere just to see what happens. And to see how long it would take to drive a congregation into financial ruin.

    • Roy Butler Says:

      Great reading here. Perhaps the sanest representation our Church has put forward.

      Relative to the issue of potential discrimination suits I did raise the issue with an attorney who is a member of the parish I serve. He suggested that since the ELCA or any religious group or enterprise with which one might be affiliated is entirely voluntary the chance of a legal action based on discrimination is unlikely. Of course this does not necessarily provide a final and absolute answer but does, I think, shed light on the generalities of our question.

    • Rev. Judson Merrell Says:

      As a lawyer buddy of mine says: “In the state of South Carolina it only costs $150 to be an *******.” That is the only cost for filing a lawsuit.

  11. Phillip Says:

    This analysis partly explains what appeared to me to be a contradiction between the Social Statement and the policy proposals. The Social Statement seems to uphold marriage as male-female, but the policy changes seem to go against that. After all, what is a PALM, anyway, but a marriage? (PALM = publically-accountable lifelong manogamous relationship).

  12. Steven D. McGinley Says:

    But is it possible that discrimination lawsuits could be filed anyway, just to see what kind of case law falls out? And regardless of the unfoundedness/frivolity of such lawsuits—what about the value of adverse publicity against traditional understandings of sexual practice?

  13. Dan Says:

    I wonder if they couldn’t sue individuals on a call commitee for denying them equal employment in defiance of established denomination policy. The individual certainly couldn’t claim to be excercising his religion since he would be acting contrary to it (as defined by the national policies).

    But there probably isn’t any incentive for anyone to file such suits since that might start an exodus of money (all they care about) from the ELCA. All they have to do is wait a little while for all the old party poopers to retire, and they will get everything they want anyway.

  14. Marshall Hahn Says:

    I believe it is even more convoluted and contorted than what you present, Dr. Root. Pastor Hunsinger’s comment supports the suspicion that the Church Council wanted to limit the expression of “bound conscience” to individuals and congregations without giving leeway for synods, candidacy committees or bishops to act on their “bound conscience.” But they did not do a good job of it. As the statement in the 4th Recommendation stands, we are to honor the bound conscience of “all”. But the resolution does not specify who this “all” is or what it means to honor that bound conscience. To determine that, we are not expected to read the mind of the church council, we are to go back to the documents that were presented to the Churchwide Assembly. And in those documents the description of those whose bound conscience is to be honored was not changed. It still includes synods, bishops, candidacy committees, and congregations. And the report from the Task Force clearly states that honoring the bound conscience of those bodies includes giving to those bodies the decision of “approving, calling, consecrating, and ordaining” those in same-gender relationships or not. If the church council now defines “all” simply in terms of individuals and congregations, it has rewritten what was adopted by the CWA.

    If the Church Council had wished to limit “bound conscience” in the way that these proposals fof implementation suggest, they had opportunity to made that clear. But they did not.

  15. Marilyn Shealy Says:

    My church is in turmoil with Pastor leading the charge to leave ELCA. My church is over 200 years old. I am griefstricken. I appreciate all these comments, but do not know where to turn.

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