What Was Decided? The April ‘Clarifications’ and Keeping Faith
What did the ELCA decide in August? That question is made difficult by unclarities in the Report and Recommendations on Ministry Policy of the Sexuality Task Force and by subtle, but significant changes made to the proposed resolutions by the ELCA Church Council in April 2009, reinforced by interpretative documents published prior to the Assembly by the Vocation and Education unit. The interpretation of the Assembly actions is decisive for the revisions of policy documents now underway and will determine what sort of space is made for those who dissent from the Assembly’s actions.
A. The Task Force recommendation.
The Report and Recommendations on Ministry Policies (hereafter, the Report, found here and referred to by line number) was a less than clear document. It did, at times (e.g., in its descriptions of Step Two, which asked whether the church should be open in principle to rostered partnered gay and lesbian persons) give the impression that it was advocating a uniform policy of such acceptance across the church. The resolution by which the Assembly would make the ‘in principle’ decision was not phrased in ‘local option’ terms. Nevertheless, both the general logic of the Report’s argument and, decisively, its own description of what it was proposing indicated a policy by which bishops, synods, candidacy committees, etc., could exercise their own conscience and act in a way different from any such national policy.
The general argument of the Task Force worked from the premise that there was not and would not soon be a consensus in the ELCA on homosexuality (Report, lines 67f). An argument that runs “We do not agree on question x, so we will allow diversity in how that question is answered” makes a certain sense. An argument that runs “We do not agree on question x, so we will adopt this particular definite policy on the question” makes no sense. The argument from bound conscience only works if the conclusion of the argument is diversity of practice.
In its detailed description of its proposal, the Task Force was quite clear that it was proposing ‘structured flexibility’ as something to be implemented, something not now in place, that would allow various groups to opt out of any national policy. The general rule was expressed early in the text: “Decisions about policy that serve only the interests of one or another group will not be acceptable” (281ff). It granted that honoring bound conscience “may lead to some diversity of practice within this church” (413-4) It proposed “some means of structured flexibility be implemented so that congregations and synods may choose whether or not to approve or call people in publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships to serve on ELCA rosters” (446-8, emphasis added). Or again: “Flexibility would make it possible – within existing practices, in appropriate settings, and through a consistent process and standards – for those who already hold the responsibility for discernment and decision making to choose whether or not to approve people who are living in publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships to serve as rostered leaders in this church” (480-483; emphasis added; how this flexibility would be compatible with ‘consistent standards’ is not explained.) These descriptions imply that synods and those involved in candidacy decisions (candidacy committees, bishops, seminary faculties) can vote against and potentially reject candidates on the basis of their bound consciences.
The Report also clearly implies that this structured flexibility would be some new set of procedures introduced into the ELCA: “The existing discernment processes for approval and call already assume that synods, bishops, candidacy committees, rostered leaders, and congregations will make decisions in keeping with their own conscience and convictions. If structured flexibility were added to the process, this assumption would still protect any congregation, candidacy committee, synod or bishop from having to violate bound conscience by approving, calling, commissioning, consecrating, or ordaining anyone in a publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationship” (488 – 495; emphasis added). Structured flexibility could not be added to the process if the present process already fully realized structured flexibility.
The proposed resolution on ministry was along these same lines: “Resolved, that this church, because of its commitment to respect the bound consciences of all, declares its intent to incorporate structured flexibility in decision-making into its policies and procedures so that synods, bishops, congregations, candidacy committees, and others involved in the candidacy process and in the extending of calls will be free to act according to their convictions regarding both the approving and disapproving in candidacy and the extending and not extending of a call to rostered service of a person who is otherwise qualified and who is living or contemplates living in a publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationship.” Note, this resolution clearly allows a bishop, candidacy committee, or other body to disapprove a candidate because of the dictates of conscience.
B. The April ‘Clarifications’
The Task Force did not say how such ‘structured flexibility’ would work. How would conflicts of conscience between, say, a bishop and a synod assembly or a bishop and a congregation be resolved? The proposal was criticized (e.g., here) as opening the church to chaos. If a synod could opt out, one might argue that the ELCA would cease to have a single ministerium and thus cease to be a single church.
As the comments on this blog from Pr. Keith Hunsinger make clear, the Church Council, at the urging of national staff, altered the wording of the Task Force’s proposal. In the resolution on bound conscience, the statement that “synods, bishops, congregations, candidacy committees, and others involved in the candidacy process and in the extending of calls will be free to act according to their convictions” was dropped In a stroke, explicit mention of the possibility of various bodies to opt-out of national policy disappeared from the resolutions. The resolutions could now be read as proposing a uniform, national set of ordination standards permitting partnered gay and lesbian clergy. While the resolution still said that ‘all’ bound consciences would be respected, just who came under the word ‘all’ was not specified. ‘All’ could mean all individuals. Nothing is said explicitly about the possibility of synodical bodies making a corporate decision to approve candidates or not.
This way of reading the proposal was put forward by the Vocation and Education unit, especially in its interpretation of ‘structured flexibility.’ As noted above, the Task Force presents ‘structured flexibility’ as something to be added to what is already present, as something new. It represented a flexibility not already present. After the April Church Council meeting, however, a Frequently Asked Questions sheet put together by the Vocation and Education unit stated that ‘structured flexibility’ is what the ELCA already had (on same webpage linked above for the Report). It represented no new flexibility. We had a national, uniform standard and we would have one in the future.
The ELCA website states that the changes made at the April Council meeting were editorial and non-substantive. If the resolutions are read in line with such texts as the just mentioned FAQ sheet, then that claim seems false. The proposals were changed in a fundamental way. A proposal that sought to favor no particular group or opinion and provided for diversity of practice became a uniform national policy.
C. The Assembly action
But the Report from the Task Force explaining the proposals continued to circulate unchanged as the Assembly made its decision. Many, myself included, continued to think that the Report interpreted the proposals. Even as edited by the Council, the ministry resolution remained consistent with the descriptions cited above from the Report, even if the resolution no longer explicitly stated who got to have a bound conscience.
The question now before us is: what forms the correct interpretive context for the resolutions adopted by the Assembly, the Report of the Task Force or the opinions of the Church Council and the staff of Vocation and Education? This question touches three points.
First, when the ministry resolution promises “to respect the bound consciences of all,” how is ‘all’ defined? If the Report defines ‘all,’ then it must include synodical bodies and officials – bishops, candidacy committees, seminary faculties.
Second, what does it mean to ‘respect bound consciences.” If the Report determines that meaning, then ‘respect’ means that syndical bodies and officials must be able to approve or call or not partnered gay and lesbian candidates. Respect does not mean only that individuals may abstain or that a synod or candidacy committee may urge a candidate to transfer. The responsible persons and bodies must be free to make a negative decision.
Third, and most decisively, how does the church keep faith with its own process, the Assembly, and its own people? The text of the Task Force’s Report was the primary document in the Assembly’s hands as they considered the proposals. Many persons in the Assembly had read it with care (probably with more care than the unofficial FAQs, etc., put out from the churchwide office). The Report presented ‘structured flexibility’ as a new initiative to accommodate the divided mind of the church on homosexuality, something that would open the possibility for a synod to approve, ordain, or the call partnered gay or lesbian pastors or not. The Report’s argument from bound conscience, constantly stressed, pointed to a policy that would permit genuine diversity of practice.
True enough, representatives of Vocation and Education said that the proposal was not local option and that structured flexibility was what was already in place. What was never said, however, was that this might be understood as a shift from what was in the Task Force Report and that voters should be aware of this shift. For many at the Assembly, the context for understanding the resolutions being voted on continued to be the text of the Task Force Report. The ministry resolution received only 55%. Could 5 percent of the voters have had the thought: “Well, I am not sure I want this in my synod, but if other synods want to do so, let them”? Such a thought was fully justified by the Report. It is disallowed, however, by the altered understanding of the Church Council and the national staff.
D. Keeping Faith
The proposed revisions to the relevant policy documents interpret ‘structured flexibility’ in the most minimal way possible. No synodical body or official is allowed to act contrary to national policy. Such bodies or officials can try to avoid a direct confrontation with national policy, but national policy trumps conscience, if push comes to shove. This interpretation flies in the face of what is said in the Task Force Report. If ‘structured flexibility’ is defined by the Task Force’s Report, then synods, bishops, candidacy committees, and semniary faculties must be permitted to exercise their bound conscience and deny candidacy, ordination, and call to partnered gay and lesbian persons. The Church Council and national staff cannot have it both ways; they cannot both say that the changes made in April were friendly amendments, merely editorial and non-substantive, and then say that the Task Force Report is now irrelevant to interpreting the proposals. If the church leadership, i.e., the Conference of Bishops and the Church Council, ignore the clear intent of the Report, they will break faith with their own process and with the people of the ELCA.