(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.)