I suspect that I will not be the only one commenting on the 2007 CWA to note that the ELCA is twenty years old, and that at twenty, persons often and appropriately endure identity crises. Twenty-year-olds are obviously not children, but at least in the eyes of some, neither are they expected to be quite yet mature. What does seem to be missing in at least one such noticing about the ELCA is that, even as this church seems to be in the midst of a crisis of identity and purpose, as church we are far older than the twenty years during which the ELCA has been a player on the North American ecclesial scene. Over the days of the Churchwide Assembly, much was made of this putative anniversary; perhaps more could have been made of the longer history of the one Church and our place within it and its traditions.
I was a voting member of the 2007 CWA from the Northeastern Ohio Synod and was invited by a couple of folks on the Let’s Talk editorial board to submit a not-from-Chicago reflection on the CWA.
Let me first make a few random observations about the assembly, and then turn to what seem to me to be the challenges arising out of what happened on those summer days in Chicago in 2007.
§ Compared to what I have read and heard about some recent ELCA Churchwide Assemblies, this one seemed relatively placid. Even the discussion of matters of sexuality was conducted with general amiability; the two visible interest groups (Lutheran CORE on the traditionalist side and Goodsoil on the revisionist) were polite even to each other. I suspect that the 2009 CWA which will consider a Social Statement on Human Sexuality will be somewhat less placid.
§ The assumption that an assembly of 1071 members can be seriously deliberative is at best bizarre. We had in addition to the election of a bishop (it seemed something of a foregone conclusion that Mark Hanson would be reelected) and a secretary, a host of persons to elect to various units of the churchwide structure, the necessary tasks in any such assembly of hearing reports and dealing with more or less routine matters of any corporation’s governing assembly, daily Bible study, daily Eucharist, and the consideration of serious matters requiring churchly deliberation, that is, deliberation that is biblically and theologically informed and allows room and time for the working of the Holy Spirit. Put simply and as kindly as possible, even assuming that over 1071 persons might seriously engage each other in such discussion, there is not enough time.
§ Parliamentary procedure often works to the detriment of discussion. In the opening session in which we considered, slightly modified, and then approved “Rules of Procedure,” the most notable modification of the proposed rules was to reduce the length of “speeches” by voting members from 3 to 2 minutes. On the one hand, this allows for more speakers, but on the other, it sets limitations that might curtail working carefully through controversial matters. Within discussion, the over use of motions to close debate (“calling the question”) was far too frequent and often destructive of any careful consideration of the matters before the assembly. A truly deliberative body needs to be able to talk for as long as it takes in order to come to its decisions.
§ As others will undoubtedly note, worship was generally well done; preaching was generally solid (if occasionally it was a challenge to find gospel buried in the law).
§ In the general run of suggestions by the church to governments and society in general, encapsulated in recommendations from Churchwide units, memorials from synods, and more formal social statements, the two that provoked the most discussion were a resolution regarding support of a two-state solution to the “Israeli-Palestinian conflict” that asks members of the ELCA to be more supportive of the Palestinian side and a Social Statement on Education. It was interesting to me that a memorial on the Iraq war aligning the ELCA with those seeking to prevent escalation of the war in Iraq passed with no discussion.
All of the socially oriented matters that came before us contained much that was worthy, some that was faithful, and some that seemed occasionally misguided. Somewhere in the course of things we approved the preparation of a Social Statement, to be ready for the 2013 CWA, on matters of “Criminal Justice.” While to some degree I understand the desire for the ELCA to provide guidance for its members, to be an effective player on a bigger stage than the church (assuming of course that politics is the larger stage), and to make statements about significant issues, to some other degree I am concerned that the penchant for making “social” statements detracts from the proclamation of the Gospel and dilutes our influence precisely as the Church, especially when we undertake to speak on matters about which we have questionable consensus and little expertise.
§ Perhaps the greatest disappointment was the so-called Bible Study extracted from the study of Galatians in Free in Christ to Serve the Neighbor: Lutherans Talk About Human Sexuality (ELCA Studies on Sexuality: Journey Together Faithfully, Part Three). It was helpful to hear David Rhoads recite Galatians entire (it was a bit distracting, after having been asked to put away our Bibles and listen, to have the captions running on the video screens). In the “study” times on subsequent days, we were given a very minimal amount of insight into particular texts and then asked to discuss with a few sitting near us some specific questions tenuously related to the text in question. At least in my neighborhood on the assembly floor, discussion tended wonder what the questions had to do with the text and then to wander into other matters. Here again I was struck by the futility of trying to carry on a conversation with over 1000 potential partners.
§ The far more serious underlying issue with regard to the Bible Studies is the question of how we consider the scriptures to be normative within our faith and life. Are we in some way to be subject to the instructions of the scriptures, or can we treat them as somehow our possession, subject them to our felt needs, raise whatever questions we want, and manipulate the scriptures to say what we wish the ancient writers had said?
§ Which leads to a hope and a fear with regard to the “Book of Faith Initiative” overwhelmingly approved by the assembly. The initiative grew out of a memorial from the North Carolina Synod to the 2005 Churchwide Assembly that the ELCA undertake a study of “the authority of scripture” in the life of the ELCA. It is worth reading one “whereas” and the primary “resolved” of that memorial:
WHEREAS, continued confusion surrounding the authority of Scripture and the inability to develop a credible and coherent method for the interpretation and normative application of the truth revealed in the Scriptures is one of the most perilous deficiencies that threatens to undermine and weaken the life and mission of the modern church in general and Protestantism in particular . . .
RESOLVED, that the 2005 North Carolina Synod Assembly memorialize the 2005 Churchwide Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America to join with the appropriate churchwide units, agencies, synods, seminaries, congregations, and others in an ongoing effort to address issues surrounding the authority of Scripture, the development of a coherent and credible hermeneutic that is faithful to the Gospel as revealed most clearly in Jesus Christ, God’s Living Word, and to develop an ecclesial climate, process, and means for fostering healthy and spirited conversation that faithfully relates the truths revealed in the Scriptures and affirmed in the Lutheran Confessions to the faith and life of both individual Christians and the corporate life of this whole church.
The fear is that the rigorous process requested by the initiating memorial from the North Carolina Synod has been watered down to a five year encouragement to be more frequent in reading the Bible and an opportunity for Augsburg Fortress to develop another “constellation of resources.” I do not see in the recommendation as approved by the 2007 CWA the sort of serious consideration of the nature of the authority of the scriptures requested by our friends from the south. The hope is that as we (individuals, congregations, synods, churchwide structures, et. al.) more frequently and faithfully read and study the scriptures and encounter the living word of God in worship, preaching, study, and conversation, we will discover ways that are faithful to the scriptures themselves and to Lutheran confessional ways of hearing God’s word through which that word authoritatively shapes our common life.
§ I don’t know what to make of the election of David Swartling as the Secretary of the ELCA. Clearly the election of a lay person to this office will change both the functioning of the Secretary and Presiding Bishop. Pr. Lowell Almen served this church more than capably and with remarkable grace in his 20 years of service. As an ordained person, he was able to serve as the ELCA’s representative in ecumenical circles in ways that I suspect David Swartling will not. Pr. Almen’s knowledge of the church, its history and its teachings will be greatly missed.
§ Perhaps the most significant action of the assembly came as a surprise in its closing minutes. The most disturbing part of the assembly for me was to see our bishops lining up at opposing microphones in an attempt to change ordination policies by having the 2007 CWA approve a memorial, passed by 21 synods, mandating such changes. At a meeting of the Conference of Bishops in March 2007, a statement was approved asking essentially that consideration of matters of sexuality and ordination be postponed until after the consideration of a social statement on human sexuality at the 2009 CWA. At the 2007 CWA it was some of those same bishops who had approved this statement who offered substitute motions that would have had the effect of moving changes in existing policies onto the floor of the assembly prior to the completion of the ongoing study processes.
This raised for me two significant issues: the nature of the bishops’ mutual responsibility to each other and the question of how the bishops understand their role with regard to policies of this church with which they might disagree. As voting members left the floor of the assembly to catch early flights out of Chicago, Pr. David Gleason (Southwestern Pennsylvania Synod) moved that: “The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America meeting in Assembly in Chicago Illinois on 11th August 2007 request the ELCA’s conference of Synodical bishops to enter into discussion and consideration of the matter of the accountability of bishops to the adopted policies, practices, and procedures of the ELCA and to formulate a clear statement of such accountability for consideration and adoption by the 2009 Assembly of this church” (passed: 318-309). The effect of the resolution will be to force the bishops of this church to undertake serious discussion about the nature of their office and the nature of this church; that is, they will need to undertake discussion of some of those matters that are much unsettled among us.
§ As someone not from Chicago, I found then mechanics of the assembly that were in the hands of the ELCA to be remarkably well orchestrated: the buses ran on time; there were actual people pointing us toward where we needed to be; necessary security was effective and generally unobtrusive. On the other hand, the Hyatt Hotel folks left a great deal to be desired. St. Luke’s Bottle Band, the entertainment for the Thursday evening banquet, was a hoot.
So where are we as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America after our 20th Birthday Party?
At the beginning and end of each business session of the assembly, Presiding Bishop Mark Hansen struck three notes on gongs to signify passage from one time to another. My comments on the aftermath of the assembly center around three notes rung through the Lutherans gathered on Navy Pier in early August 2007. The first note was rung before the assembly began in the final written report of Pr. Lowell Almen, only Secretary of the ELCA. Much of his report was a compilation of statistics, but he began this last of his reports to the ELCA with a strong call that this church concern itself with “a healthy ecclesiology”:
Clear indications exist in many parts of the ELCA of a lack of understanding of basic Lutheran ecclesiology. At the same time, I see a failure to appreciate the lively, mutually engaging polity of the ELCA, a polity that arises from a wholesome, Reformation-shaped ecclesiology.
The other two notes were struck in Presiding Bishop Hanson’s sermon at the Opening Eucharist of the Assembly. The first note was the question of whether we – the ELCA – are a sent church or a settled church. Hanson clearly wants us to be on the “sent” side of the equation. The language of “sent” or “settled” rang frequently through the comments of Hanson, in daily preaching, and in the various reports from the Churchwide offices in their presentations to the assembly.
But Hanson also struck a lower note, never quite explicit from the leadership in the assembly hall, but often resonating through the assembly: “Sometimes I wonder—even worry—that for too many of us ELCA stands for ‘Expectations Low. Climbing Anxiety.’” There seemed to me to be a high level of anxiety about the unity and future of the ELCA often sounding through the calls to celebrate our twenty years as a denomination.
Matters of sexuality and ordination are the tip of an iceberg built of things not settled in the process that led to the formation of the ELCA and left unsettled still: a clear doctrine of ministry, a “healthy ecclesiology,” a common understanding of the authority of the scriptures and Lutheran confessional documents, a clear sense of our place within the whole Church. If the impending decision on who may or may not be ordained breaks the tenuous unity of the ELCA, it will be because of the fault lines left unbridged in our formation; the anxiety felt by many of us is more about these things and less about who may or may not be ordained.
Unfortunately, for much of this church, it is around those matters of sexuality that the anxiety about the future unity and vitality of the ELCA centers. A significant amount of the discussion throughout the assembly sessions and in the hallways (if “discussion” is the right word for a process involving over 1000 participants) concerned questions of sexual practice and ordination. It became clear early on that the debate would run on two tracks.
Those seeking to retain current policies, and perhaps even to call for their enforcement, spoke primarily from the presumption that allowing homosexual persons to be pastors would divide or perhaps even destroy the ELCA.
Those seeking revisions in current policies spoke primarily from the presumption that ordination is a right to be granted on personal, congregational, or synodical request to any of the baptized, and that in continuing to promulgate policy statements that, in “rule” if not in practice, restrict ordination to either chaste single persons or faithfully married heterosexual ones, this church risks losing the service of good and faithful gay, lesbian, and bisexual persons who could otherwise be ordained or remain on the roster of ordained persons.
Neither side of the discussion, at least that which occurred on the floor of the assembly, seemed, at least in my judgment, to be able to offer biblical, theological, or ecclesial argument to sustain their position. Based on what I heard, we as a church are not capable of making a decision about matters of sexuality and ordination precisely because we have not in our 20 years been able to come to some common and settled understanding of who we are as a “church” and how from within that church we understand scripture, tradition, and ecumenical commitment.
In striking the note of “sent or settled” in his opening sermon, Bishop Hanson posed a number of contrasts between the sent and settled church, most of which were pointed and appropriate challenges to the settled, self-absorbed, and insular character of many ELCA congregations. But ringing perhaps discordantly against the note of Almen’s call for a sense of “healthy ecclesiology,” this contrast caught my ear:
It is tempting for a settled church to become self-absorbed. A settled church may not feel connected to each other or the community except when the Nicene Creed is spoken and therefore become separated from the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church. A sent church will understand itself to belong to a ‘millennia-deep, globe-encircling’ body of believers and constantly seek to experience and express unity and diversity in Christ’s body.
Here, Lowell Almen’s note should ring more loudly, for when we lose a sense of the importance of the faith handed on to us, precisely in creeds, confessions, and liturgy, we cannot know what or who we are precisely as “church” and as “Lutheran.” When we seek diversity for its own sake, especially in doctrine, liturgy, and creed, we lose the experience of being connected with that “millennia-deep, globe-encircling body of believers” with whom we share common expression of the faith which we believe together, teach together, confess together, pray together.
So which are we to be: sent or settled? Or might a concern for ecclesiology lead us to see that unless we are to some degree settled, we have no place from which to be sent and no clear sense of what we are to do once we get there? We need to be both settled and sent.
Through the course of the assembly, we were offered marvelous opportunities to be in solidarity with Palestinians, African women, persons with AIDS, and a host of other worthy and necessary ways to reach out both with the gospel and in service to our neighbors wherever they might be. What wasn’t clear is whether or not we as a church understand the center from which we reach out and the gospel which we are to carry with us as we go.
A brief biblical excursus:
It might reasonably be argued that Luke/Acts is the story of God and a people struggling together to define themselves as both settled and sent. In Luke, the disciples never got too far away from Jesus. Before his crucifixion and resurrection, when the disciples were sent off on their own, they had specific instructions and limited range (as far as they could walk without sandals). When they were left to their own devices (e.g., while Jesus was on the mountain of Transfiguration with Peter, James, and John), they were as yet unable to accomplish their mission. After Jesus’s resurrection, the disciples were given their marching orders and the instruction to wait for something to happen. So the disciples settled in to pray and wait (and it might not be unreasonable to presume that during the same ten days, as the Luke writer tells the story, the persons of the Trinity discussed the nature of the conversation with and about this community of the new age with and through which creation would be sustained). Even after Pentecost when the disciples were sent out in the power of the Holy Spirit, they continued to return and settle as community to work out policies and practices for this new way of undertaking God’s mission in the world. This is the picture of a church both sent and settled.
At 20, much has become unsettled in the ELCA: the authority of the scriptures, the place of the creeds, the unifying potential of a worship book and a collection of hymns, commonly held assumptions about the nature and purpose of the church itself. If we are “the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church” of Christianity’s primary creed, seeking diversity ought not to be a primary driver of our life together. Do not misunderstand: diversity is and will be part of the life of any church, and a level of diversity is to be celebrated and fostered, but if the church is “one” we need to be able to learn to sing in at least compatible keys. Again, for at least some of us, the anxiety about the future of the ELCA lies in the unsettled questions of ecclesiology, ministry, and the authority of the scriptures and traditions of wider church and not simply in the question who may or may not be ordained to serve as pastor in the ELCA.
I suspect that the ELCA has some difficult and anxiety- filled years ahead of us and that the 2009 CWA will be a significant battleground. It had not been the intention of those preparing the social statement on Human Sexuality to address specifically question of homosexuality and ordination, but one of the actions of the 2007 CWA was to stipulate that those issues would be addressed in the proposed social statement to come before the 2009 CWA. I further suspect that within the next few years, the ELCA in assembly will approve the blessing of same-sex unions and the ordination of persons living in them.
Shortly after I arrived home after the CWA and a few days of relaxing in Chicago, I received a letter from a local ELCA pastor expressing his heartbreak to see “what had happened in and to our ELCA” during the 2007 CWA. His specific point of reference was the resolution to encourage ELCA bishops to exercise restraint with regard to pastors living in “faithful, committed, same-gender relationships.” His claim is that the ELCA has chosen to ignore scripture, as “the infallible, inerrant Word of God.” His plea is that others who “have a heart” for this truth gather “for a time of dialogue, repentance, crying out to our Holy God who detests sin and asking for his mercy.”
Aside from the misunderstanding of the scope and intent of the resolution passed by the CWA, and his misunderstanding of the nature of scripture, his point of view reflects the sentiment of a considerable segment of clergy and perhaps a larger segment of laity in the ELCA, a segment that threatens the unity of this church.
There are things worth debating, things worth potential division, things worth times of “dialogue, repentance, crying out … to God for mercy.” But as I see things at the moment, questions of sexual practice and ordination, in and of themselves, are not among them. The underlying questions of ecclesiology, biblical authority, ecclesiastical responsibility, and responsible processes for coming to decisions may well be worth the effort and risk.
What became apparent to me as a voting member of the 2007 CWA is that the ELCA is not at this point in its history capable engaging in consideration of the serious matters that confront us. Without laying an adequate foundation, whatever decision we make on homosexuality and ordination will be detrimental to this church. Without that foundation, whatever we promulgate in social statements, recommendations regarding international affairs, or any of the other words we might speak to ourselves or to the various cultures we inhabit, however worthy the conclusions might be, will remain simply political or pious suggestions. Until we learn from what settled center we speak and are sent, we risk the unity of the whole church.
Were it up to me, the ELCA would postpone considerations of sexuality (2009), genetics and bioethics (2011), and criminal justice (2013) and undertake to consider for as long as it takes the challenge put before us by Pr. Lowell Almen and seek to foster among us a “healthy ecclesiology.”
§ A healthy ecclesiology helps us see the part of this church in which we live and work within a larger framework.
§ A healthy ecclesiology makes us realize that the description of the Church in Articles VII and VIII of the Augsburg Confession is not a portrayal of episodic appearances of the Church but rather of our continuity in the faith-a continuity both assured and shaped by the Word, the Word announced, the Word with water, and the Word in meal. That is, the Church does not appear only periodically when the Word is preached and the Sacraments are celebrated. Rather the Church has a continuing reality in the context of the life generating experience of Word and Sacrament.
§ A healthy ecclesiology helps us understand that we walk in the footsteps of the apostles and martyrs, the pioneers and teachers, the servants and leaders who have gone before us.
§ A healthy ecclesiology helps us realize that others will follow us and we are to prepare the way for them. We are called to be faithful in our time.
§ A healthy ecclesiology enables us always to see the broader dimensions of the life of this church.
§ A healthy ecclesiology compels us to understand that the Church is the body of Christ—Christ’s institutional incarnation in the world—and is not our personal possession for our own gratification.
§ A healthy ecclesiology drives us to render what we can offer rather than focus on what we may prefer to gain.
§ A healthy ecclesiology summons us to constant prayer not only for the Church in our own community but also for the Church throughout this land, throughout the world, and throughout the ages.
§ A healthy Lutheran ecclesiology reflects the Apostle Paul’s teaching of the Church as the body of Christ (see 1 Corinthians 12). With this perspective, we can embrace even more fully the interdependent polity of the ELCA for congregations, synods, churchwide ministries, and related institutions and agencies.