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 thats good grammar, even if it is tendentious philosophy.)
The Language of the Report
I want to comment first, not on the substance of the Reports 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 Augustines 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 Reports 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 ones life whether one is an individual or a church body or the Church? In this respect, the Reports sense of the mission of the Church is vague and garbled, at best, and unacceptably narrow and relatively meaningless, at worst.
Heres 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 anothers conscience, except that conscience is probably the most malleable aspect of ones 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 ones 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 (Im 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 ELCAs Churchwide Assembly (CWA) for legislative action, to use the Reports 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 naïve 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.