This issue of Let’s Talk is devoted to a critical inquiry into a pair of resolutions about gay and lesbian persons in the church, which passed at the 2000 Metropolitan Chicago Synod Assembly, and to a discussion of the forum for congregational leadership at the assembly. The first of these tests the will of the people of the synod to walk together in their journey of faith because good people are heavily invested in opposing positions that involve more than different opinions of what the church should do – they involve different understandings of what the church can do. The second is a work in progress, the first act of a play yet to unfold in new, perhaps surprising, ways. Each of these actions raises, in its own way, the question, “Where do we go from here?”
The two resolutions are “memorials” to the ELCAChurchwide Assembly 2001. One petitions the ELCA to develop a rite of blessing for same-sex couples in committed life-long relationships, and to produce materials that support pastoral counseling as well as educational materials that promote biblical and theological foundations for all committed relationships. The other entreats the ELCA to end the celibacy rule for gay and lesbian persons in committed relationships who are now on the ELCA roster or who are candidates for ministry. Our first three articles view these resolutions from different perspectives.
Robert Goldstein presents the case for the resolutions. “We as a church,” he says, “are responding to justice issues proposed by our Western culture in which God has called us through the Gospel. Our response is in seeking Gospel-centered new understandings of Scripture and of our Christian way of life.” Goldstein draws on scripture and tradition, using the latter in an active verbal sense, “traditioning,” to describe a process in which the church, ancient and modern, has responded to its historical situation in the light of the gospel.But, Goldstein says, it’s more than scripture and tradition. This matter touches the lives of real people in real congregations who are face to face with the possibility of change in the church. For Goldstein the time has come for this change and for dealing with the pastoral and educational problems that it implies.
Julie Williams spoke against the resolutions at the assembly. She is a Sunday school teacher and youth mentor who is persuaded by her reading of scripture that the ELCA is headed in the wrong direction on gay/lesbian issues. Williams offers here her interpretation of significant texts and her reflections on the responsibilities of teachers.
Frank Senn reads the resolutions and asks a prior question: Can the church bless “committed same-sex relationships”? The ministers of the church can pronounce “the blessing of God on conditions God has blessed and for which a promise may be proclaimed (e.g. ‘Be fruitful andmultiply’).” But the church, says Senn, can’t do whatever it likes. In particular it can only proclaim that for which it has scriptural warrant, and blessing is a form of proclamation. Senn declares that he can find biblical warrant for blessing many things, even a vow of celibacy for the sake of the kingdom of God. But he has not found biblical texts that show God’s favor toward same-sex relationships or promises concerning them. But Senn’s “no” to his question is coupled with his welcome to gay and lesbian Christians and a summary of his counsel for those who seek his pastoral care.
Goldstein, Williams, and Senn interpret scripture and listen to tradition. All three are concerned with hospitality and the care of the faithful, yet they represent distinct, at times contradictory, points of view. We often see such lack of congruence when we gather as a congregation or a synod to make decisions. What shall we do? Shall we avoid messy disputes in favor of quiet individual piety or a “safe” congregational enclave in the hope that someone, somewhere, will devise a species of “reconciled diversity?” Or, in this political season, shall we march with signs that say either, “Yes, Yes, the Church can Bless!” or “Don’t You Know, the Answer is NO!” and gather at the microphone for our moment of amplification?
Neither of the above says Gregory Singleton. Seeking to model deliberation in the church, Singleton offers a different answer. Avoiding difficult issues, he says, is not really an option unless one is willing to live with growing tension and bad faith. The alternatives are either competition in which “factions emerge,driven by an agenda external to the essence of the Church,” and the discussion “becomes more and more an adversarial debate” or struggle “with the question, with the tradition of the Church, with scripture, and the members struggle with each other.” Singleton favors struggle and draws on the catechumenate as a model of how it might work. His reflections are solidly based on his personal experience in two congregations and are informed by social theory and by the liturgical foundation of the catechumenate.
Our other topic, the forum for congregational leadership, is discussed in two essays. One of the planners of the event, John Holm, sketches his view of its purposes and objectives, and the reasons for choosing the program that was offered. The day long event was designed to “raise up leadership in order to thank, equip, inspire, and celebrate leaders through their ministries of discipleship development.” Holm expands on this purpose as approached through the chosen format and concludes with both satisfaction that the purpose was served and with acknowledgement that “there remain many more topics and concepts to be offered up that will assist our leaders in the fulfillment of their mission.”
Julie Ryan recognizes that the language of the event shaped its character. The language of the day raised some questions for her, both in terms of what speech was used and what was not. “Our life in God is one of paradox: we are at once sinners and saints, bound yet free, daily dying in the waters of baptism and being raised to new life. Does our language reflect this dimension of mystery?” Ryan probes this question using direct quotes from the event. Finally, she asks how we link our conversations about discipleship with the sacraments of the church. Here, surely, is insight for planners of future events of this kind.
Where do we go from here? Our authors give various answers. Let’s Talk! And let’s include the laity in our conversation. In the spirit of the leadership event, we suggest that pastors give copies of this issue to lay leaders in their congregations, particularly those who were delegates to the assembly and/or attended the leadership event (two of the authors and your editor for this issue are laypersons).