No one should envy the task of producing official prose for the ELCA. As the holy fathers of Nicaea would no doubt testify, the drive to create or preserve consensus is no friend to language or theology.
The proposed social statement on sexuality and the policy recommendations are the object of legitimate criticism and discontent, some of which I share and much of which is represented on these virtual pages. But they are worthy documents in other ways that I hope to set forth. And with grateful acknowledgment of the views of those opposed to any policy change on recognizing relationships or ordination standards, I wish to pose a few questions of their views in light of the documents under discussion.
The statement as proposed suffers from prolixity. Surely a whole section devoted to the importance of friendship was not necessary, nor were any lengthy restatements of opposition to abuse and exploitation in sexual relationships.
The rhetoric can be irritatingly imprecise and abstract at times, with too much affirming, opposing, and cautioning going on and too few clear, concrete statements that would provide ethical and doctrinal guidance. As necessary as “guideposts” and “markers by which individual and communal decisions can be tested” are, they should not require a full-blown social statement to be offered.
I appreciate the depth of learning and reflection that obviously went into the statement’s composition, but I wish the three sites of authority on which it rests — the Bible, Luther and the Confessions, and modern social thought — had been supplemented with the wisdom of the Church that reasoned and worshiped between Paul and Luther. Augustine and Bernard of Clairvaux would have been welcome voices, for instance, in relating the life of the Holy Trinity to the experience of human love. Others will no doubt find similar lacunae.
Most importantly, the statement and the recommendations bow to the convention that if same-sex relationships are to be at all embraced, they must be described in purely ideal terms, alongside fully idealized expressions of opposite-sex relationships.
We praise abstinence, lifelong marriage, and sexual exclusivity far, far beyond their real presence in our congregations.
To assure ourselves that we are not merely being morally lax, it seems we must burnish our hypocrisy by praising abstinence, lifelong marriage, and sexual exclusivity far, far beyond their real presence in our congregations. I hope someone else found the description of earnest same-sex couples living in relationships “marked by the same levels of mutuality, love, and trust as are found in heterosexual marriages” to be as funny as I did.
I share some of Frank Senn’s concerns about questions left unanswered by the statement. I would add that some of the concepts leaned upon and raised up in the statement — most notably “community” — are themselves in need of definition for an American society that does not experience them in any straightforward way.
All the same, it’s important to recognize the real virtues of these documents. Their wisdom on the idea of “social structures” and “orders of creation” is noteworthy, as is their engagement with the social ethics both implied and expressed in Luther’s discussion of the commandments.
The rhetorical tongs with which gay and lesbian people have long been held up and examined in our church — “persons who are homosexual in their self-understanding;” “practicing homosexuals” — have, thank God, been laid aside in our official documents. The notion that gay people and their relationships — however deserving of toleration — are defective in light of the gloriously normative heterosexual family is likewise muted.
The documents neither seek to force a consensus where none exists nor invent policies and processes in accordance with any proposed consensus.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the documents are conservative in that they neither seek to force a consensus where none exists nor invent or radically reform policies and processes in accordance with any proposed consensus. This is what makes such work dissatisfying to partisans of all stripes. It may even institutionalize divisions in this church which will impair our functioning as a united body. But it is enough to work the peace of the present, especially when passions are high and threats of schism are made daily.
I confess that my own perspective in this matter is highly constrained. I have never been able to understand why people object to homosexuality. Dr. Schifrin alludes to the worthlessness of such intuitive moral judgments, coming as they do from my Old Adam, but even so I am not truly able to engage in this issue as I should.
Still, a change in policy, especially one that sets us at odds with our own history and with other branches of the Church Catholic, needs to be weighed carefully. Objections should be treated with the utmost gravity and the burden of proof should probably rest on those who wish to institute a change. With the aim of encouraging further reflection on these issues, I wish to address some questions to the very forceful exponents of the policy as it stands.
1. Gender in matrimony and ministry
Insofar as opposition to embracing same-sex relationships relies not on the famous “Bible bullets” but on ideas of gender and complementarity found in the Biblical stories of creation (“male and female,” “be fruitful and multiply”) and redemption (the church as bride), it is not clear to me how it may be combined with an androgynous office of ministry.
I can understand how the male/female dichotomy and complementarity may be fundamental both to God’s plan of creation and to the relationship between Christ and the Church in salvation, and I further see how this may be applied as a norm to human sexuality (though I suspect that basing Christian marriage on Revelation 21-22 reverses the analogy). But if gender distinctions must be represented in marriage, how may we say at the same time that they are not necessary for the representational function of holy ministry?
The gendered-marriage, androgynous-ministry policy favored by WordAlone, Lutheran CORE, and the Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ strikes me as an idiosyncratic version of Protestantism without much hope for a future.
2. The role of same-sex-attracted people in the church
If opponents of the proposed changes have their way at assembly, what, exactly, do they propose that gay and lesbian Christians should do, whether partnered or not, whether lay, in care, or already ordained? Shall they continue as tolerated but unrecognized members of the body of Christ? Should they face the choice of repentance and “reparative therapy” or being purged? May they, alone among children of Adam and Eve, walk the royal road back to pre-fallen sexuality? Will the hypocrisy and abuse of ages past be tolerated as an acceptable cost of orthodoxy?
The debate on this issue has progressed far past the point at which these questions may be considered in the abstract. These are real people with real families and real relationships. Few, if any, of them will just go away or start lying for the sake of our consciences.
Rome has given an answer to this question: gay and lesbian people may neither have relationships nor be ordained (to celibate priesthood), but must remain celibate. Is that a policy the traditionalists wish to impose and enforce?
3. Norms of sexual conduct
We live in a society and a church in which serial marriage, cohabitation, and a multiplicity of sexual partners through time are the norm.
The social statement gives fulsome praise to lifelong, faithful marriage and strongly, though not to the point of utter condemnation, discourages sexual relationships that fall short of that ideal. Yet we live in a society and a church in which serial marriage, cohabitation, and a multiplicity of sexual partners through time are the norm, including for our seminarians and clergy.
Is there any willingness from any quarter to make Biblical sexual norms a matter of policy and discipline in the ELCA? Should the sexual attitudes, histories, and present conduct of all candidates for ministry be examined? Or shall gay and lesbian seminarians bear the law alone?
I pose these questions in good faith; I am eager to see them answered. I am not eager to engage in this debate in which goodwill and teachableness have been markedly absent, and I am yet less eager to do so as an uncalled, unordained candidate who should probably avoid commenting on controversies. I deplore the thought that my church might be broken in two over an issue that my grandchildren will be literally incapable of understanding.
My polemical purpose, such as it is, in asking these questions is to urge on my traditionalist brothers and sisters an awareness that there are consequences to inaction as well as to action. There is more than one way to be rash, to open wounds, to provoke heresy, scandal, and schism.
Our brothers and sisters who are or wish to be in same-sex relationships have presented themselves as faithful Christians. They are not a theological category that can be defined out of existence, but people who have chosen, for whatever reason, to grapple honestly with their faith and their sexuality in the presence of a religious tradition that has been historically hostile to them. To borrow a term from another discipline, they have standing. They, and we all, deserve a thoughtful and just judgment.