Winter 2010, Vol. 12, No. 3

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Table of Contents

An Army of One

From the Editor:
The End of the Christian Right

The Open and Affirming Lutherans

Angling for Anglicans

The Fighting Atheists

Not in My Canton

China's Lama Obsession

Scientology's Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Year

Letter to the Editor


New books

The Open and Affirming Lutherans
by L. DeAne Lagerquist

Lutherans don’t usually make national news, but they did on August 21 when the Churchwide Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), meeting in Minneapolis, voted to permit partnered gay men and lesbians to serve as pastors. “It makes ELCA the largest denomination in the country to welcome gays into the pulpit without restriction,” wrote Minneapolis Star Tribune Marlin Levison.

In fact, the critical vote for the 4.6 million-member denomination had come on August 19, when with just the necessary two-thirds the Assembly adopted a 34-page document entitled “Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust.” The product of years of widespread, sometimes tense, deliberations, the document established acceptance of “lifelong monogamous same-gender relationships” as part of the church’s social teaching.

The same day, a tornado rolled through town, destroying hospitality tables and damaging the cross atop Central Lutheran adjacent to the Convention Center where the Assembly was meeting—and bringing to life the first line of Nicholas Grudtvig’s beloved Lutheran hymn: “Built on the Rock the church doth stand/ Even when steeples are falling.”

“A supporter of the social statement typified the storm as a mighty wind of the Holy Spirit and as a positive message,” wrote Betty Carlson, editor of WordAlone Network, a Lutheran website critical of the ELCA’s liberal drift. “Some WordAlone Network members heard a different message, a warning of God’s anger at the ELCA in the wind.”  

Whichever the case, what followed two days later was a series of votes that at once committed the ELCA to embrace the new teaching and opened a loophole for those who didn’t want to. 

On the one hand, the representatives directed the church “to eliminate prohibition of rostered service [e.g., ordination] by members who are in publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships.” On the other, they asked that this be carried out in such a way as not to impose upon “the bound consciences” of those who disagreed with this decision.

The administrative means for exercising this congregational prerogative to refuse homosexual pastors was left to be worked out later. “This is a time,” said Presiding Bishop Mark S. Hanson, “for thoughtful, engaged, prayerful, imaginative response.”

In a body known for moderation and emotional restraint, feelings ran high. “The resolutions drew tearful testimony from supporters and opponents, both of whom cited the Bible in their arguments,” wrote Duke Helfand in his story for the Los Angeles Times.

In the Philadelphia Inquirer, David O’Reilly highlighted the opposite poles. “I’m just stunned and grateful,” said Rev. Jay Wisner, who serves University Lutheran Church of the Incarnation in West Philadelphia with student ministries at University of Pennsylvania and Temple University. “It breaks my heart,” said retired bishop Paul Spring, who serves as president of the Lutheran Coalition of Renewal (CORE), a group that opposed the change—and which announced in November that it would move toward formation of an alternative church body.

As the headline on Julia Duin’s Washington Times story put it: “Lutherans to allow gay clergy, couples: Doctrine change may cleave denomination.”

The road to Minneapolis was long and filled with the kind of deliberation typical of mainline Protestantism in general and the ELCA in particular. Indeed, discussion, debate, and deadlock on issues of sexuality had occupied the ELCA almost since it was formed through the merger of three pre-existing Lutheran denominations in 1988.

ELCA teaching statements are crafted through a participatory process as the church wrestles with the Bible and its traditions to discern God’s purposes and to serve its neighbors. Rather than dictating moral standards, this model encourages members’ theological engagement, reflection upon their involvement in the church’s mission, and ethical activity in public arenas. 

In the early 1990s, the Conference of Bishops and the ELCA Church Council (its governing board) issued statements on sexuality, congregations held face-to-face discussions, and debates took place in person, in print, and on-line. Grassroots organizations promoted competing visions of faithfulness to the church’s mission.

Altogether, the first draft of a statement on sexuality elicited no fewer than 20,000 responses resulting in a substantially revised draft that the Christian Century characterized in November 1994 as “stress[ing] the traditional themes of fidelity in marriage and sexual abstinence outside of marriage and extol[ing] the essential goodness of human sexuality.” Although the intention was to present it to the 1995 Assembly, action was postponed because of intense differences over homosexuality.

At the time, the policy of the church was that homosexuals who promised to be celibate could be ordained and called to serve as pastors; those who would not, could not. Non-celibate gay and lesbian pastors who came out could be removed from the roster. If their congregations did not get rid of them, they themselves could be expelled from the denomination. In line with that policy, in 1995 the ELCA expelled St. Francis Lutheran of San Francisco for calling and ordaining two lesbians, Ruth Frost and Phyllis Zillhart. 

In spite of this, other congregations followed St. Francis’ lead. Technically, they violated the requirement that congregations call pastors certified by the ELCA. In these cases, the pastors were not certified because of their sexuality (rather than, for example, heresy or inadequate skills).

In 1996, the ELCA Church Council adopted “Sexuality: Some Common Convictions”—a provisional document that, according to its preface, reflected both “the continuing ferment in our society regarding sexuality and sexual behavior…[and the] discussion and debate that has occurred throughout the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America during the past few years in response to three study documents on sexuality.”

Through the late 1990s, the denomination continued to confront various issues related to human sexuality. In 1999, the Assembly received “Congregational Ministry with Gay and Lesbian People,” a report from the Division for Outreach, but declined to propose any policy changes.

In preparation for the 2001 Assembly, the Division for Ministry catalogued ELCA efforts to engage the issues, listing “four types of study materials the church has produced, 10 instances of ongoing formal conversations in which the church was engaged, three special events it sponsored, seven related activities or services it provided, and several other activities that did not fall into those categories.”

As the paper flew, ferment continued on the ground. In April of that year, Bishop Charles H. Maahs  of the Central States Synod censured Abiding Peace Lutheran in Kansas City for “willfully violating” the ELCA constitution by calling a lesbian, Donna Simon, not on the official clergy roster. However, Maahs did not expel the church from the denomination.

“My primary reason for this is that the issue of homosexuality continues to be under discussion in the ELCA, and the Central States Synod can make a contribution to this discussion,” he said. “I have met regularly with Pastor Simon and the leadership of Abiding Peace and have experienced them as people of good faith. While they steadfastly believe that the ELCA’s official policy of excluding gays and lesbians from ordained ministry is wrong, they have demonstrated an ability for open and respectful dialogue without resorting to coercive and inflammatory tactics which all too often damage the church.”

Meanwhile, Bishop Paul W. Egertson of the Southern California West Synod participated in ordaining a lesbian, Anita Hill, at St. Paul Reformation Lutheran, St. Paul, Minnesota. In May, Egertson announced his voluntary resignation.

It was at the 2001 Assembly in Indianapolis that the processes of study, dialogue, and discernment that culminated in the Minneapolis decisions were initiated. The Assembly requested a study of homosexuality to be presented in 2005 along with a proposal concerning ordination and a comprehensive social statement on sexuality. 

Early in 2002, the Rev. James M. Childs, Jr. was appointed to direct the studies, a task force was appointed, and a budget of $1.15 million approved for an anticipated six-year project. The task force proceeded to consult with experts, hear from advocacy groups, and prepare three study documents for congregational use.

Meeting in Orlando in 2005, the Assembly defeated a proposal to authorize ordination of non-celibate homosexuals by a vote of 503 to 490—well short of the necessary two-thirds majority. Nonetheless, development of the sexuality statement continued.

At the 2007 Chicago Assembly, representatives encouraged church leaders to exercise restraint in disciplining congregations and pastors for non-compliance related to matters of sexuality while the social teaching statement was still in process for presentation two years later. In April of 2009, “Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust” was made public, and quickly drew support from the denomination’s future leaders.

In May, some 120 seminarians signed an open letter urging their bishops to support the proposed actions. At their convention in July, Lutheran Youth Organization leaders endorsed the social statement that would be approved in Minneapolis.

Evidence of support for the new regime came in from various quarters. A September 9 ELCA News Service release reported that Rev. Bradley E. Schmeling had been receiving “letters and stories of Lutherans returning to church after many years away.” (Schmeling was removed from the clergy roster in 2007 after publicly acknowledging his committed relationship with another man.)

Former presiding bishops Herbert Chilstrom and H. George Anderson wrote a letter asking for prayers and financial support that Lutherans Concerned (a group that had advocated for the changes) posted as a fund-raising appeal on its web-page:

“Our troubled world needs the Good News of the Gospel and all that flows from it….We are absolutely certain that we can continue to live together and serve as one family in the ELCA.

“This is why we are calling on you, our brothers and sisters in the faith, to pray daily for the unity of this church and its mission. We ask you to join us as we step up our support of the ELCA with a generous gift.”

In response, Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Minneapolis decided in November to increase its annual contribution. Similarly, St. Olaf College Student Congregation quietly added a budget line-item for “benevolence giving” to the denomination.

On the other side, blog posts and other on-line reaction to news stories revealed opponents’ conviction that the ELCA had abandoned Bible teaching. The conservative website Lutheran News asked readers to register their views by completing the statement, “The ELCA’s decision on Gay clergy in committed relationships is...”  As of January 1, 63 percent of the 128 respondents had marked “biblically incorrect.”

 “I have come to believe that possibly two of the main reasons this vote passed within the ELCA this past summer is because people either don’t read and study the bible or don’t believe it is the inspired word of God,” commented Mad and About to Leave. “Sure, there is no perfect church this side of heaven because we are imperfect people. But it’s written in black and white with no wiggle room.”

As 2010 began, formation of an alternative organization by traditionalists appeared certain.

To withdraw from the ELCA, a congregation must take two votes, 90 days apart, each of which must receive a two-thirds majority. On January 9, Presiding Bishop Hanson told the Austin (Minn.) Post-Bulletin that just 150 of the denomination’s 10,400 congregations had held initial votes on whether to leave, and of those, some 30 had failed to achieve sufficient votes to proceed to a second vote.

One certain departure will be the Community Church of Joy, a Lutheran mega-church in Glendale, Arizona, over 90 percent of whose members voted to withdraw from the denomination in June. On December 20, Pastor Walt Kallestad explained to the Washington Times’ Wayne Anderson that the decision had not only been a reaction to the proposed sexuality statement:

“We started the process before the convention because it was clear that the vision, values and direction of the ELCA was totally opposite of where we believe that the New Testament church was destined and designed to be….Either the Bible is the final authority or it is not.”

Community Church of Joy will join Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ (LCMC), a traditionalist “association of congregations” established in 2000 to counteract what it considered liberal tendency in the ELCA, including the denomination’s moves toward full communion with the Episcopal Church. It is likely that some congregations will opt for dual membership in the ELCA and LCMC.

For its part, CORE met in September and began planning for both a new church body and a free-standing synod within the ELCA. In its news releases, web-page, and brochures, the organization emphasizes both the historic significance of the “reconfiguration” of American Lutheranism and its own commitment to maintaining relationships with those remaining in the ELCA. 

The model of a free-standing synod harks back to 1888, when the (then largely German-speaking) Missouri Synod organized an English District to link Anglophone congregations across the nation. (To be sure, the English District, which currently comprises 158 congregations, was known as the Missouri Synod’s progressive wing.)

Despite CORE’s stated desire for cooperation and the Assembly’s commitment to “respect for the bound consciences of all,” accusations of bad faith, ill-will, and undue pressure are being made. A conservative website called The Road to Christian Freedom has posted a guide to “Games Bishops Play.” On December 20, the Washington Times quoted Pastor Mark Gehrke as saying that there are ELCA pastors who are “too frightened to openly criticize the denomination’s position.”      

As with the split in the Anglican community, worldwide reaction to the ECLA’s move has divided on north-south lines. African churches have expressed strong disapproval, while in Scandinavia, there had been hardly a ripple.

Indeed, the Swedish church consecrated Eva Brunne, a lesbian, as bishop of Stockholm in November. Speaking with Ecumenical News International’s Peter Kenny on November 17, the Archbishop Anders Wejryd recalled decades of discussion prior to the Church of Sweden’s own endorsement of same-sex marriage in 2009.

“Everyone has to decide for themselves,” Wejryd said. “It is so important that all these issues are handled very seriously in your own cultural context. I think things like this should not be pushed upon someone else.” 

That point of view was not, however, shared by Archbishop Walter Obare of Kenya, who told Kenny, “We condemn in the strongest terms possible this unfortunate and anti-scriptural development in a church body that bears the name of the great reformer, Dr. Martin Luther.”

What is the significance of the ELCA’s long and relatively untumultuous journey to full equality for gays and lesbians?

For one, it cements the denomination’s move from ethnic periphery to the center of the American Protestant mainline. With respect to homosexuality, it now stands with the Episcopalians and the United Church of Christ, even as the United Methodists and the members of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. continue to struggle with the issue. A church identified more with the middle-of-the-road than the left, it appears to have demonstrated that even the most contentious question can be settled by careful deliberation.

To be sure, some defections are likely, but the reluctance of the ELCA’s traditionalists to sever their ties is striking. By one important measure, the Lutherans have less to fight over than the much more contentious Episcopalians: An ELCA congregation that chooses to depart does not have to fight to keep its buildings. This makes the desire to stay within the fold all the more noteworthy.

Addressing the 2009 ELCA Assembly after its votes, Zimbabwean Ishmael Noko, General Secretary of the Lutheran World Federation, made the point: 

“They understood that the Church is the Body of Christ, a creature of the gospel and, therefore, not ours to dismember. They have therefore left behind for us, from this city of Minneapolis, a legacy for us to stay together.”


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