Tuesday, January 25, 2005

A Unhelpful Experience: The ELCA Task Force Report on Sexuality


This post may be of interest (if to anyone) only to Lutherans. I admit up front that it is pretty parochial, dealing as it does with a Report from a committee appointed by a gathering of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (my Church, hereafter called "ELCA"). Still, I post it here, instead of on a Lutheran (specifically, ELCA-interest) listserv with which I am involved, because I think the issue is one of catholic importance: The issue of homosexuality is hitting or will hit all churchly traditions. In my personal experience, the Anglican fellowship is distraught over it; their relatives, the American Methodists (with whom Lutherans have been invited to share communion fellowship) have faced defrocking trials over the issue (with mixed results); the Presbyterians have faced the issue directly; the Lutheran community is becoming polarized, too.

How church bodies – or preferably, the Church catholic – make/s decisions about how to live out the gospel with respect to that issue (as with all issues) is one of the critical questions we face in this time. So I justify posting some thoughts here because of my sense that this is not just “Lutheran news.”

As will likely appear obvious from what I say here, I think the Report is a major disappointment. It represents, in the words of one friend, a giant crab-style step sideways. (One note on my style: Throughout this diatribe I shall anthropomorphize “the Report,” in an effort to avoid the even more tedious “the authors of the Report.” I think that’s good grammar, even if it is tendentious philosophy.)

The Language of the Report

I want to comment first, not on the substance of the Report’s recommendations, but rather on its presentation. “In the beginning was the Word . … And the Word became flesh.” Our salvation is borne by word (spoken and enacted – or “visible,” to use Augustine’s term). Does this not mandate for the Community of the Word (i.e., the Church) clarity of expression, careful use of language, eschewing of babble? The authors of this Report seem not to believe so. Indeed, the Report is chock-a-block with vague and imprecise words and phrases that seem to convey something, but which, upon closer examination, do not.

For example, much is made of the “God-given mission” of the Church, as though that phrase means something in and of itself. But in the context of this Report, what does it mean? The God-given mission of the ELCA is apparently unaffected by how we deal with the issue of homosexuality, else why would we be free to continue in our current mess for the sake of that mission (which is what the Report recommends we do). Yet, is not at least an aspect of that mission to live in faithfulness to the commandments and will of God? And if the commandment of God is that homosexual conduct is not acceptable and that non-celibate homosexuality should be a bar to ordination (which is at least implied by the current ELCA policies which are affirmed by the Report), then are we not impairing the God-given mission by continuing to allow contrary conduct (and, by one reading, even sanctioning it), as the Report recommends? Or conversely, if there is no bar to the ordination of non-celibate homosexuals to blessing their unions, is it not a sign of faithlessness to the mission to continue to bar the blessings and ordination of otherwise well-qualified and faithful people?

Just what is the mission which the Report’s authors so regularly say they want to support? Is it simply the goal of remaining a denomination, an institution – perhaps so that some of the other “stuff” of Christianity can proceed? Does that mission have anything to do with forming and reforming the “consciences” (the other great buzz-word of the Report) of the people of God? How does one engage in mission that is not tied up with the way one structures one’s life – whether one is an individual or a church body or the Church? In this respect, the Report’s sense of the mission of the Church is vague and garbled, at best, and unacceptably narrow and relatively meaningless, at worst.

Here’s another example of the use of language to massage an idea into acceptability, while pretending that everyone agrees on what is being said: Much is made in the Report of the importance of respecting the "consciences" of those with whom we disagree. (Indeed, one friend refers to “conscience” as a “trump card” over everything else said in the Report.) And I guess I have no great argument with respecting another’s conscience, except that conscience is probably the most malleable aspect of one’s personality. The conscience can be informed and formed just as easily – and probably more easily – by self-interest (see capitalism) or perversion (see much of the pornography published throughout world history) or one’s peer group (talk to my daughter) or intellectual arrogance (ahem!) as by the Church and her teachers. To push the matter, if some one "in good conscience" thinks that black men are unfit for ministry, must I respect that view because of the conscience of opiner? Or if someone thinks that "swingers" are appropriately ordained and allowed to serve any congregation that would put up with their "lifestyle," must I submit?

Because conscience is so fickle, even if held in “good faith,” I would not want you to live with my strongly-held, conscience-supported stance if it violates “the faith” (by which I mean not just the intellectual content of the Church's dogma, but also her teachings about how to live as a disciple of Jesus). Neither, at least arguably, should I be compelled to live with your mistaken conscience. And yet, after admitting that the matter of how to address homosexuality inspires great passion on both sides, the Report suggest essentially that "we all get along."

Can we seriously agree to disagree about important issues of faith and life if we are to live as one body? How do we discern whether something is important enough to toe the line about it? Are there issue that are so basic to the life of faith that they justify dividing the Church over them?

Lamentably, the Report does not address these concerns.

I could pull out the editorial stop to address meaningless language in the Report (e.g., at one point, the Report distinguishes between its listening carefully, respectfully, and compassionately to voices from hearing the voices), but that would simply be self-fulfillment that would serve no practical purpose.

Background to the Report

In its great concern over the issue of homosexuality – and specifically over whether the Church “may bless” same-sex unions/marriages and whether she may ordain non-celibate homosexual persons (in contravention of the current “rules” regarding that) – the ELCA, back in about 2001, formed a “task force” to study the issue and to make recommendations for what the Church should teach and do about the issues. After years of study (by the task force and by and among congregations of the Church) and input from innumerable quarters (I’m willing to bet that the “friend of the court” briefs presented to the Task Force rivaled what the Supreme Court gets on its trickiest cases), the Task Force drafted its Report and Recommendations. That Report has now been issued (here) for general consideration. The Recommendations now go the conference of bishops of the ELCA, who will decide what kind of recommendations (if any, I suppose) will be set before the ELCA’s “Churchwide Assembly” (CWA) for “legislative action,” to use the Report’s language.

Overview of My Critique

The first major weakness of the Report is that it sets out no new teaching or insight on the matter of sexuality (or of the specific sexuality issues facing the denomination which inspired the formation of the Task Force) whatsoever, except to say that we should all get along in this turbulent time, regardless of what we think and of how important we think this matter is. (This is actually the first Recommendation!) The Report asserts that the Bible can be interpreted in various ways about this matter, but it makes no effort to report on how those various interpretations might be addressed or weighed. I think that lack represents a serious lost opportunity, regardless of the rest of the document. Beyond the assertion that people of goodwill disagree on how to deal with our gay brothers and sisters, which comes as somewhat less than surprising given that a blue-ribbon commission was established to address the issue, there is no help in thinking – theologically or otherwise – about the issues.

The recommendations in the Report regarding ordination and homosexual unions take us no farther. The Report recommends that the ELCA take no action to revise its current policy and strictures on homosexual expression – either with respect to the ban on blessing same-sex unions (this is the second Recommendation) and with respect to refusing ordination to non-celibate gay men and lesbian women (this is the third Recommendation). But then it goes on to recommend that the Church leave up to the “conscience” of congregations and bishops whether those strictures should be enforced. Here, the “traditional” teaching is affirmed – and then it is as quickly discarded by, in effect, saying that it ought not be applied rigorously (if at all).

In that recommendation, I think the committee is being at best na├»ve and at worst disingenuous – perhaps even duplicitous – by suggesting that in its recommendation that the current policies not be enforced, it has not set out a new policy. I will give the Task Force the benefit of the doubt (beware Greeks bearing gifts – and “Penas” is a Greek name) and assume that their essential foolishness is unintentional and the result of wanting to run a careful middle way. Nevertheless, what is says remains fundamentally flawed logic and ultimately misleading.

At this point, I interrupt myself. I intend to post a point-by-point commentary on the Report that will deal with some of the other features therein. But for now, this overview says all that I anticipate saying at greater length.


Anonymous said...

"[The report] makes no effort to report on how those various interpretations might be addressed or weighed. I think that lack represents a serious lost opportunity."

Thank you, brother. I wasn't feeling up to taking this on, so I'm grateful to you for doing it. (Now all I have to do is comment!)

Naturally, I'm disappointed in the report. It's clear that it took a great deal of work, and infuriating that it produced such feckless result.

"Study" to this committee clearly meant "study what members of the ELCA think on these issues by conducting an unscientific poll, and make recommendations that will soothe the majority;" and not "study the scriptures and other learnings to discern what is right in the eyes of God."

This represents not just a lost opportunity, but a squandered one.

So now what?


Dwight P. said...

In all honesty, Sister, I hope and pray that the bishops will simply thank the Tast Force for their work and table the Report. There is no good to come from action one way or another. Going to the CWA should be a resolution with about 8 "whereas clauses and two "therefore be it resolved" clauses: Thank the Task Force; Recommend no changes. I'm not sure that such a move would wreck any greater havoc on our beloved ELCA than would submitting the recommendations in their current form -- or, worse, to my mind, submitting the first two and not the third (which I've heard is a possibility -- but I don't want to spread gossip).

Dwight P.

Maurice Frontz said...

Agreed with your commentary. The other thing that comes to my mind is the ubiquitous word "pastoral." As in, "we are not going to legislate this, we are going to deal with it in a pastoral way." But for better or for worse, the ELCA makes its most important decisions via a legislative body. The Churchwide Assembly - not a pope, not a collegium of bishops (the bishops have no authority to table this report, BTW), not a magisterium, not a group of teaching theologians, not a majority of the respondents to the study - THE CHURCHWIDE ASSEMBLY has the responsibility and the authority to make decisions regarding ordination standards. To say that the Churchwide Assembly should cede this authority to individual synodical bishops so that they can deal "pastorally" with people who aspire to the one rostered ministry of the ELCA, seems to me to invite chaos and a disunity which the book of Judges described this way: "In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes."

BTW, pardon my signature - I have to have it this way because I have a blog for my youth group.

Dwight P. said...

I think, aside from the ecclesiological implications, that a major disadvantage to "each does what is right in her own eyes" is that it opens the floodgates to all kinds of unfairness. We will no longer be treating everyone equally. Decisions about whom to obey or bless will be made based on "politics," or personality, or compensation, or ... . I have personally experienced differntial "pastoral" care from bishops and it made me feel like dirt. In my experience, the Recommendations will do even more damage than no action at all.

Thanks for your comments, Pastor Frontz.

Daniel S. said...

First, Dwight - I've been anxiously awaiting what you had to think about this document, and was not disappointed. As usual, you are right on. I was cooking dinner two weeks ago listening to Keillor and started hooting (and sighing on the inside) about his response to the thing. Right on. Thanks for reprinting it earlier.

In reading Pr. Frontz's post, I was struck by his term "One ELCA Order of Ministry" (or something to that effect). Unfortunately, we already have two orders of ministry in the ELCA; again, put forth under the guise of "conscience". Indeed, the CWA has already ceded authority over to bishops and indiviual pastors for ordinations outside the historic episcopate. There have been at least 25 documented (by WordAlone.org) or so "extraordinary ordinations" that have taken place since that compromise amendment was added to the CCM aggrement (and in my view if I were Episcopalian, a nullifying amendment). For instance, the bishop in my home synod, when asked about it, doesn't even bother to bring it up to ordinands the neccesity to have an episocpal bishop present at ordination. His willfull disobediance and ignorance could perhaps be seen as "pastoral," but because the CWA gave up it's authority, anything and everything can now go on if your conscience tells you so.

It seems to me that these buzz words "Conscience" and "Pastoral" are new code words for "screw authority."

I wish I were closer, Dwight. This would be a great dinner discussion.