August 09, 2005

Journey Together Faithfully

As readers of Quo Vadis already know, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) began its Churchwide Assembly yesterday. It might seem unusual that a Catholic blogger would be covering the ELCA Churchwide Assembly's events, and normally I would agree that it is unusual. The difference this time is that the Churchwide Assembly is considering ecclesiastical legislation that would somewhat relax the ELCA's current policies on committed same-sex partnerships and ordained ministers who are in committed same-sex partnerships.

There are two things I usually don't talk much about here at Sollicitudo Rei Socialis: 1) ecclesiastical issues and 2) GLBTQ issues. I don't talk much about ecclesiastical issues because this blog isn't primarily for ecclesiastical issues; rather, this blog is devoted to social justice issues and how they intersect with political issues. I don't talk much about GLBTQ issues here because I am a gay man, and I don't want to injure the credibility of Sollicitudo Rei Socialis and my blogging colleagues by making it appear as if Sollicitudo Rei Socialis is on some kind of "gay crusade" under my direction. There are times, however, when both ecclesiastical and GLBTQ issues come together in a potent combination that can't help but intersect with issues of social justice. With the beginning of the ELCA Churchwide Assembly, we have come to such an intersection.

To understand the controversy, we must first understand the legislation that is being proposed. It's nothing too radical. We're not looking at legislation like we recently saw in the United Church of Christ, when its General Synod decided to endorse same-sex marriage. Nor are we looking at legislation like we've seen in the Episcopal Church USA or the Anglican Church of Canada; we're not looking at the very public ordination of the first openly gay and partnered bishop, nor are we looking at legislation that would change the ELCA's policies to approve of same-sex unions or marriages across the board. In comparison to what we've seen in the United Church of Christ and the Anglican Churches of North America, what the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is considering appears to be relatively modest.

First, the Church Council has recommended a resolution that would reaffirm the ELCA's commitment "to concentrate on finding ways to live together faithfully in the midst of disagreements, recognizing the God-given mission and communion that we share as members of the body of Christ." This sounds nice, and it is. But the fact of the matter is that this legislation won't change anything, except maybe the tone of dialogue, within the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. This shouldn't in and of itself be controversial, but I suspect that it will be. There are some, after all, who don't want "to live faithfully together" with Queer Christians, and I expect that their voices will be heard at the Churchwide Assembly. Nevertheless, I think it's somewhat likely that this resolution recommended by the Church Council will pass.

Second, the Church Council has recommended a slight relaxation of current ELCA policy on the blessing of same-sex unions. I refer to this as a slight relaxation because it can only be considered slight. The resolution would still uphold the guidance of a statement made by the Conference of Bishops in 1993, which absolutely ruled out the possibility of blessing same-sex unions. The slight relaxation comes in the second part of the resolution, which expresses trust in "pastors and congregations to discern ways to provide faithful pastoral care to same-sex couples." This resolution puts more discerning power in the hands of individual pastors and congregations, but it doesn't by any means change the ELCA policy of refusing to bless same-sex unions. I think this resolution has some chance of passing, but it may be defeated by a majority who are unwilling even to slightly relax these policies for the sake of Queer Christians' pastoral care.

Third, and most contentious, the Church Council has recommended a difficult process by which women and men who are in committed same-sex partnerships may be ordained to ministry. This process will involve the congregation to be served, the bishop, the synod, the synodical Candidacy Committee, and the Conference of Bishops. All must be in agreement before a man or woman in a committed same-sex partnership can be ordained. Rather than being a change in ELCA policy, this is an exception to the standing rule. The rule that women and men who are in same-sex partnerships are not to be ordained will stand, but this will provide an exception that will allow congregations, bishops, and synods to discern better the needs to be met in exceptional cases, always with the prior approval of the Conference of Bishops.

Although this third resolution is a modest piece of legislation, it is also the most controversial and the biggest point of contention. Unlike the previous two resolutions which only require a simple majority vote, this resolution requires a 2/3 majority vote. Even if the first two resolutions pass, it is extremely unlikely that this one will pass. What this will mean for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America if the third resolution doesn't pass is that its Churchwide Assembly is not even open to the most modest of changes when it comes to the pastoral care of Queer Christians, effectively expressing to GLBTQ Lutherans that they're not really wanted in ELCA congregations.

Even though the language of the first two resolutions about "living faithfully together" and "pastoral care" sounds nice, it means nothing if it isn't backed up by concrete action. What all Queer Christians should be looking for is the passage of all three resolutions. The passage of the first two, without the third, should be seen as nothing more and nothing less than the defeat of inclusion within the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The passage of the first two, without the third, will be business as usual: pretty language about inclusion, without any inclusive action whatsoever, however modest it may be. On the other hand, the passage of all three resolutions should be viewed as a victory, even if it can only be viewed as a small victory.

The theme of the task force which created these recommendations was "Journey Together Faithfully: A Call to Study and Dialogue." The theme of the ELCA Churchwide Assembly this year is "Marked with the Cross of Christ Forever." Both themes speak to the unity of the Church, the indivisible unity of Christ's Body, and the simple fact that all Christians are in this struggle together. All Christians are carrying this cross, which is in some mysterious way the Cross of Christ, together. We'll see if the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is really interested in journeying together faithfully with Queer Christians, or if these are just more pretty words with no action behind them. We'll see if the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is really interested in being the Body of Christ, if it's really interested in being marked with the Cross of Christ as a communion, or if it is only willing to thrust the cross onto the shoulders of others. I'm hoping that the Churchwide Assembly will indeed choose to journey together faithfully, with all Lutherans agreeing to be marked with the Cross of Christ forever. We'll begin to find out on Friday, when these resolutions come up for a vote.

In the meantime, I've been offering prayers and support for the ELCA Churchwide Assembly over at Quo Vadis. I hope all of my fellow Sollicitudo Rei Socialis contributors, and all of our readers, will join me in my efforts to offer prayer and support.