Here's my most recent article for the Redeemer Tidings:
It is a challenging time to be the church, indeed. Please note the following news release, from the ELCA New Service, August 21, 2009:
The 2009 Churchwide Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) voted today to open the ministry of the church to gay and lesbian pastors and other professional workers living in committed relationships.
The action came by a vote of 559-451 at the highest legislative body of the 4.6 million member denomination. Earlier the assembly also approved a resolution committing the church to find ways for congregations that choose to do so to "recognize, support and hold publicly accountable life-long, monogamous, same gender relationships," though the resolution did not use the word "marriage."
The actions here change the church's policy, which previously allowed people who are gay and lesbian into the ordained ministry only if they remained celibate.
Throughout the assembly, which opened Aug. 17, the more than 1,000 voting members have debated issues of human sexuality. On Wednesday they adopted a social statement on the subject as a teaching tool and policy guide for the denomination.
Some within our midst have been tracking these proposals very closely and will be troubledby these decisions. "How can this church act contrary to what is clear in the Bible?" they will say. (A challenging argument since we routinely contextualize and ignore many of scripture's ancient injunctions!) Some, on the other hand, will welcome this decision, seeing this as a victory for justice, seeing here signs of a more inclusive, welcoming church. Others still may remain conflicted and confused on the issue, desiring to respect Scripture and the tradition of the church but who are nevertheless personally affected, for whom homosexuality is not an evil "out there" but a reality in their families, communities, and perhaps within themselves.
The ELCA has been trying hard throughout this process to respect both sides of the debate, and, in its own words, to find ways to live together faithfully despite our differences. But still, there will be many whose conscience is greatly troubled, who will wonder how they can, in good conscience, remain within the ranks of the ELCA.
What does this mean for us? Alongside these decisions on ministry policy, the Churchwide Assembly also passed a resolution which would respect the "bound conscience" of those who disagree with these changes. Bound conscience was something to which Martin Luther appealed during the Reformation, and it has to do with the premise that, where there are differing interpretations of scripture regarding a moral issue, one cannot force one's conclusion upon another whose conscience is bound by an alternate view. Dr. Timothy Wengert, of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, provided some helpful remarks on this point:
Respect for the bound conscience does not mean that one can simply declare one’s conscience to be bound to a particular interpretation of Scripture, and then make everybody else deal with it. Respecting bound conscience is not a form of selfishness or an excuse to sin. Instead, it means that the very people who hold different, opposing viewpoints on a particular moral issue based upon their understanding of Scripture, tradition and reason must recognize the bound conscience of the other, of their neighbor who disagrees with them, and then work in such ways as not to cause that other person to reject the faith and fellowship in Word and Sacrament. (from "Remarks Concerning Bound Conscience" by Dr. Timothy Wengert, 2009)
The assembly's acted under the banner of respect for bound conscience. In this case this means that synods and congregations who disagree with the change in policy, who are bound by their conscience, will not be forced to act contrary to their conscience (i.e. to accept gay and lesbian persons living in committed relationships as pastors.) But, of course, this begs the question: how are these decisions made within synods and within congregations where there is a considerable diversity of opinion and belief?
Much conversation and dialogue is needed in the coming weeks and months around this issue; to that end we will be holding an initial dialogue session on Wednesday, September 9th (with two sessions, 12 Noon and 7:30 PM.) I envision this as an opportunity for mutual understanding, under that same banner of respect for bound conscience. I have also requested the Church Council to begin to consider how we will address this issue in the coming months.
Those who desire to understand more about the Assembly's actions will do well to check out the resources on the ELCA's web site, www.elca.org/assembly.
In conclusion, some thoughts from the ELCA's presiding bishop, Mark Hanson, in his concluding remarks to the Assembly:
...we need one another. We need time. We need the voices of those who lament and those who rejoice over these actions, for together we have been called to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ and engage in God’s mission for the life of the world...
I invite you into important, thoughtful, prayerful conversation about what all of this means for our life in mission together. What is absolutely important for me is that we have this conversation together.
We meet one another finally -- not in our agreements or our disagreements -- but at the foot of the cross, where God is faithful, where Christ is present with us, and where, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we are one in Christ.
Grace to you, and peace!