Archive for the ‘Implementation’ Category

The ELCA Conundrum

December 14, 2009

Two recent news reports illustrate the conundrum before the ELCA.

On the one hand, Pr. Richard Johnson in the December issue of the Forum Letter (not available online; subscribe here – it is well worth the subscription price) describes the November meeting of the ELCA Church Council. The Council, he reports, is committed to the finding in Sexuality Social Statement that the ELCA has no consensus at present on the morality of homosexual partnerships and thus the four positions outlined in the Social Statement should all be respected as valid in the ELCA (a bad argument, but that is another matter). This attitude would seem to imply that if a majority of a synod council or candidacy committee finds such partnerships incompatible with the ordained ministry, they should be able to vote their convictions.

On the other hand, an ELCA news release (here) quotes ELCA Secretary David Swartling expressing concern that the resolutions of the NE Iowa Synod (here), which embody that freedom to vote one’s convictions, seem incompatible with the ministry recommendations adopted by the Churchwide Assembly.

Secretary Swartling may be correct, but the problem does not lie with the NE Iowa Synod resolutions. The problem lies in the divergence between the Social Statement (which argues that the church has no position on the sexuality questions) and the recommendations on ordained ministry (which, as amended by the ELCA Church Council and adopted by the CWA, implicitly affirm a specific position).

Secretary Swartling dodges the bullet by saying the Church Council will need to decide the issue in April. Their task is not to be envied.

[I have not made any posts for a while. I worry about repeating myself and have needed to attend to other tasks. I should return to posting more regularly soon.]

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Synod Council Acts

November 19, 2009

No news has been released from last weekend’s meeting of the ELCA Church Council in relation to the revision of Vision and Expectations and the candidacy process, with the exception of a news release on reinstatement procedures. One presumes something will be forthcoming, almost certainly saying that the Council followed the lead of the bishops and will not act on these matters until next spring at the earliest. In the meantime, the Northeast Iowa Synod Council adopted the resolutions posted to the right (here) declaring their intent to exercise their bound conscience and directing the synod not to abide by the Assembly action. They also call for a recognition that the actions were unconstitutional.
All very interesting. More comment to follow.

An Alternative Path

November 11, 2009

The way forward embodied in the proposed revisions to the candidacy process that will be considered this weekend by the ELCA Church Council is a ‘preserve the status quo’ option. It maintains, at least officially, the unity of the ELCA ministerium and treats the crisis created by the action of the Churchwide Assembly as a passing cloud. The concessions to bound conscience are less even than those granted to opponents of the agreement with the Episcopal Church that committed the ELCA to enter episcopal succession. Candidates opposed to episcopal succession can, in certain cases, be ordained in a way that contradicts Assembly-adopted policy. In our present case, individuals involved in decision making within the candidacy process can remove themselves from participation, but no decision is to utilize sexuality standards other than those approved by national policy.

What would an alternative look like, an alternative that embodies the promise of the Task Force to respect the consciences of synods, bishops, candidacy committees, etc.? It would not be pretty. It would severely compromise the unity of the ELCA ministerium; the ELCA would cease to be a single church in the traditional sense. But that result was built into the Report and Recommendations of the Task Force, as is discussed in the paper to the right (here). That Report was never repudiated by the church leadership. It is late in the day now to say “Oh, those results would be too radical.”

An alternative that avoids chaos as much as possible might look like this:

1. Synods are ‘church’ in the ELCA ecclesiology. They have ecclesial standing and can make corporate decisions. The synod assembly is the appropriate place for that to happen. Synod assemblies should be permitted to pass, by a simple majority, a resolution that would:
a. direct the synodical candidacy committee not to entrance, endorse, or approve for rostering any person in a same-sex relationship,
b. direct the bishop not to sign the attestation of call to any pastor or rostered person in a same-sex relationship.
c. direct the synod staff not to receive the mobility papers of any rostered person in a same-sex relationship.
Without such an action, the acceptance of persons in such relations would be the default policy, but individuals with responsibilities in the candidacy and call process are expected to act out of their own consciences, whether to accept or reject persons in such relations.

2. No congregation or pastor should be expected to register the candidacy of a person in a same-sex relationship if that candidacy violates their conscience.

3. Seminary faculty members would be expected to vote in line with their consciences on the approval of partnered gay or lesbian candidates for ordination or rostering. No one is expected to abstain simply because their conscience is not in line with the Assembly action.

4. Seminary Boards can make a decision not to rent campus housing to gay or lesbian couples. Without such a decision, the default position is that campus housing is open to such students.

I am not a canon or civil lawyer and this alternative is only a suggestion. The details would need to be worked out. If the Report and Recommendations that the Assembly had in its hands are taken seriously, however, something along these lines needs to be on the table.

Michael Root

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.

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 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