Author Topic: ELCA Churchwide Assembly--Status Quo (Oct. 2005)  (Read 1507 times)

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ELCA Churchwide Assembly--Status Quo (Oct. 2005)
« on: October 07, 2005, 01:35:53 PM »
ELCA churchwide assembly — status quo
by Richard O. Johnson
October 2005 "Forum Letter"
Copyright 2005 ALPB

Two decades ago, when the Lutheran Book of Worship was still accurately described as the “new hymnal,” I noticed a fascinating thing. Assisting ministers would sometimes find themselves at the altar without their hymnal, having to sing the offertory from memory. Every now and again one would mistakenly belt out, “Gather the hopes and the fears of all” (rather than “hopes and dreams” — conflating a line from O Little Town of Bethlehem with Let the Vineyards Be Fruitful). I always kind of liked that mistake, truth be told; if we can’t ask God to gather up our fears along with our hopes, what's the point?

Answered prayer

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) brought its hopes and its fears to its churchwide assembly in Orlando August 8-14, and offered them up to God. Insofar as the ship seemed to hold together, perhaps those prayers were answered — at least in the one-step-at-a-time, just-for-today way that the gracious Lord often deems best for us. The hopes and fears were mostly centered on the report of the sexuality task force, and while the fears of many were assuaged, the hopes of few were fulfilled. The churchwide assembly’s decision was an endorsement of the status quo — good news to almost no one, though a majority seems willing to live with it for the moment.

That endorsement began with a long flurry of parliamentary wrangling over what size majority would be required to adopt anything. Everyone was very confused, and the scheduled ninety minutes stretched into four hours. In the end it was agreed that Recommendations 1 and 2 would require a simple majority, while Recommendation 3 (the biggie) would require a two-thirds majority — pretty much what the church council had said originally.

Then, sexuality was put on the back burner until Thursday. That afternoon was dedicated to what was called a “quasi committee of the whole.” Any voting member could speak on the general topic (no motions or parliamentary maneuverings allowed). I counted 32 speakers, fairly equally divided between the two sides (if one can be that simplistic).

Resisted temptation

The statements were often moving, and a few somewhat dramatic. A Southwest California Synod pastor, for instance, “outted” himself on the assembly floor and announced he was in an eight-year committed relationship. He reported he recently “came out” to his parents, his congregation and his bishop. Two voting members, though, spoke of their own struggles with same-sex attraction. They credited the teaching of the church as the anchor that helped them resist the temptation of same-sex engagement. Both sides made the points they wanted to make, and they did so effectively. On the whole, I was somewhat more impressed with the traditionalist speakers. They effectively avoided the hysteria that often intrudes on both sides when the subject is sex.

The discussion over for that day, the assembly turned to other routine matters. Then, out of the blue, came a startling motion. To this point, fifteen proposed amendments to Recommendations 2 and 3 had been submitted. An ad hoc committee had been established to figure out how best to process them. The motion now was to have the committee rank amendments in order, from “most change in the current policy” to “least change.” After they were ranked, the committee was instructed to bring the amendments requiring the “most change” to the assembly floor first.

[Continued on next post]
« Last Edit: October 07, 2005, 01:46:07 PM by roj »
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ELCA Churchwide Assembly--Status Quo Part 2
« Reply #1 on: October 07, 2005, 01:37:07 PM »
ELCA Churchwide Assembly (continued)

Sounded logical

The proposal came from Eric Peterson, a layman from Wisconsin, and seemingly a sympathizer with Goodsoil, the “pro-revision” lobby. It took Solid Rock, the “traditionalist” coalition, by surprise. The effect of this was not immediately apparent, but it sounded logical and the assembly
approved it. Gradually, it became clear that this would likely mean the revisionist amendments —
the ones advocating removal of any restrictions on the ordination of gay and lesbian persons — would be considered first by the assembly.

The ad hoc committee did an excellent job — no one could quibble with how they defined “most
change” or “least change.” Peterson, however, did not like the outcome. He had intended that amendments to the main motion be considered before substitutes — intended it, but, as he admitted, he hadn't said it that way. ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark S. Hanson, chairing the assembly, correctly ruled that it didn’t really matter what he intended, it was what he said that had been adopted.

So, the order finally having been fixed, the assembly worked through all the proposals. First, they overwhelmingly approved the can’t-we-alljust- get-along Recommendation 1. This reaffirms the ELCA’s intention to stick together through thick and thin in spite of differences. This did not, however, receive universal approval. A few were opposed, suggesting instead that unity exists only as the gift of God, not by a vote of a church convention. No matter. Eighty-three percent of the voting members nonetheless wanted to vote for unity.

Blessed or not

Recommendation 2, concerning same-sex blessings, was the most difficult for the assembly. Under the Peterson procedure, the first amendment offered was by Grand Canyon Synod Bp. Michael Neils. It was Neils’ notion that congregations should have the right to authorize their pastors to perform same-sex blessings. There was long discussion, of course, but in the end twothirds of the assembly just said no. With one exception, other amendments from both sides were debated and defeated (though not as decisively as the Neils plan).

The one exception was a seemingly innocuous motion by Lower Susquehanna Synod Bp. Carol Hendrix. The original advice of the ELCA Conference of Bishops (which this recommendation was “continuing to respect”) had found no basis for a rite of same-sex blessing, but had trusted pastors to offer pastoral care to “all people.” Somehow the church council changed the original language to “pastoral care to same-sex couples.” Hendrix wanted to go back to the “all people” language. She made the not unreasonable argument that if the ELCA was going to respect the bishops’ original advice, the assembly should respect the bishops’ original language. The effect was to take a step back from the implication that “pastoral care” for “for same-sex couples” might overtly authorize blessing samesex unions. Whether the assembly got that or not, they still very narrowly approved the Hendrix amendment (491-484, the closest vote of the week).

Goodsoil did not like this. One of their supporters immediately sought a brief recess, presumably to regroup. The assembly wasn’t interested, and instead slogged on through all the other amendments. Recommendation 2, with the Hendrix amendment, passed by more than twothirds.

[Continued on next post]
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ELCA Churchwide Assembly--Status Quo (Part 3)
« Reply #2 on: October 07, 2005, 01:38:03 PM »
(continued from previous post)

Revisionist demonstration

The way the votes were going, few expected Recommendation 3 to have a snowball’s chance in summertime Orlando. Remember, 3 would have allowed for limited exceptions (which in time likely would mean unlimited exceptions) to the ban on gay clergy in committed relationships. The “most change” amendment came up first. Proposed by a New Jersey pastor, it would have eliminated any restriction on the ordination of “qualified persons in same-gender, covenanted
relationships.” This, the most radical of all the proposals, garnered 374 votes — well short of a majority, but the total provided the clearest evidence of the revisionists’ strength in this assembly.

It was at this point that the Goodsoil crew left the visitors’ section and silently filed up to the front of the hall and positioned themselves between the dais and the main assembly area. This was not unexpected and there was heavy security on hand if it proved necessary. Plainclothes hotel security personnel were in the hall and a squad of uniformed police officers, kept well out of sight behind the dais’ curtain, were ready to remove any and all demonstrators — if the presiding bishop would but give the word. When the 100 or so demonstrators moved to the front, Bp. Hanson asked them to return to their seats. They refused.

There followed a flurry of attempts from the floor to move the assembly to remove the demonstrators. Someone wanted a recess to clear the hall and then reconvene. That was ignored. A Goodsoil supporter wanted everyone to let lesbian icon Anita Hill address the assembly. That was rejected. Someone else slyly suggested expanding the visitors’ section to include the area where the demonstrators were standing. One wonders where the protestors might have moved to after that, had it been adopted, but that proposal was ignored, as well.

Unintimidated father of six

In the end, to his credit, Hanson simply told the assembly that it was his intention to continue the debate. “I think you have the capacity, and I have the ability, to do this,” he reassured them. And that is what they did. A voting member, though, expressed concern about the demonstrators’ explicit attempt to intimidate the assembly. Bp. Hanson replied, “I’ve asked them twice to return to their seats. I share your disappointment. We’re confronted by choices, none of which is good. I’m trying to make the choice that best serves the work. There are advantages to being a parent of six. We’re going to go on with our work in spite of their attention-getting behavior.”

That comment surely sealed his affection in the hearts of the voting members. He managed with that one remark to summarize respectfully his and the assembly’s frustration with Goodsoil. He defused the tension in the hall, provoked some appreciative laughter, and incidentally called the behavior childish. The man is good on his feet. Privately, so we are reliably told, Hanson was genuinely livid.

And with that the assembly proceeded to vote down all amendments to Recommendation 3 — and then defeated the proposal itself. In fact, by the time all the amendments were dispatched,
the vote on the original motion took place with no debate on the substance of the recommendation.

Still discerning

So what does it mean? As I said earlier, it means status quo — persons in same-sex relationships (committed or otherwise) are precluded from serving as pastors in the ELCA. Whether synod bishops will accept this judgment remains to be seen. Watch how Southwest California Synod Bp. Dean Nelson deals with — or declines to deal with — the pastor who announced on the floor of the assembly that he is in violation of the ELCA’s expectations. Watch other bishops, too, who have declined to bring charges against pastors openly in violation of ELCA standards, pleading in the past that “the church is in a process of discernment.”

There will be continued ambiguity over same-sex blessings. The church council prior to the assembly was asked to clarify just what was meant by Recommendation 2. Specifically, would its
approval indicate that the ELCA authorizes samesex blessings, or not? The council wouldn’t answer, suggesting that anything they said on the matter would only confuse things rather than clarify them — a fascinating response when fully considered, something along the lines of, “We don’t know what we mean; that’s our story, and we're sticking to it.”

[continued on next post]
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ELCA Churchwide Assembly--Status Quo (Part 4)
« Reply #3 on: October 07, 2005, 01:39:27 PM »
[continued from previous post]

Episcopal confusion

It is equally apparent that even the bishops don’t agree on the meaning of their 1993 advice. Southwest Pennsylvania Synod Bp. Don McCoid, one of the few current synod bishops actually present in 1993, insisted that the “pastoral care” phrase in no way was intended to leave the dooropen for blessing same-sex unions. Other bishops insist that “trusting pastors to provide pastoral care” means letting individual pastors do whatever they like with impunity.

The Conference of Bishops met after the assembly, but there was nothing coming from that meeting, either. Clarification may be a difficult thing to come by, since the bishops are so seriously divided about this issue (“split about five ways,” was the assessment of one bishop). Southeast Michigan Synod Bp. Robert Rimbo, a pro-gay advocate, expressed unhappiness that the 1993 statement didn’t represent him because he wasn’t there when it was adopted. Retired Bp. Paull Spring once responded to a similar complaint by saying, with exasperation, “Well, I wasn’t at the Council of Nicea either.”

There were some important sidebars beyond the big sex story. Forum Letter pretty much called them correctly in our August issue, but here’s a recap:

The Methodist sidebar

Interim Eucharistic fellowship with the United Methodist Church (UMC) sailed through. No one actually spoke against it, but two concerns were raised. The first is the perceived dichotomy between what the UMC officially says about Holy Communion and what it actually does. A Kansas pastor, for example, spoke of a UMC colleague inher town who is a little iffy on infant baptism. ELCA ecumenical officer Randall Lee replied that we must make our decisions based on official statements of other churches, not anecdotal evidence — noting that one could probably cite equally embarrassing anecdotal evidence about Lutherans. Point taken, and Forum Letter does try to bring as much of that to light as possible, though personal ecumenical experiences of the sort noted are hard to forget.

Another concern was aired by James Crumley, former Lutheran Church in America presiding bishop. He thought interim sharing didn’t go far enough. We’ve been working on this for decades, he said, and frankly we already have more in common doctrinally with the UMC than with some groups with whom we’re already in full communion (a bit of a slap, one must think, at the United Church of Christ). More colloquially, a Pacifica Synod pastor said, “I can’t imagine a more inoffensive church than the UMC.”

Of course inoffensiveness isn’t much of a basis for ecumenical agreements. Bp. Crumley has a point, and yet there is virtue in ecumenical caution. In a press briefing following the action, Pr. Lee offered no specific time line for full communion, though that is the goal. The dialogue team remains constituted and will be planning for the future.

In any case, the assembly approved the agreement by a vote of 94 percent, and responded with a standing ovation — clearly sensing that this action really means something. Methodist Bp. William Oden brought greetings and noted that John Wesley's heart-warming “conversion” took place after hearing a reading from Martin Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans. The assembly then sang Charles Wesley’s great hymn, O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing.

This former United Methodist found himself “strangely warmed” (to use Wesley’s phrase) by all of this. My head is reluctant about the action, for the same reasons noted by the Kansas pastor cited above, but it did warm my heart. As another ex-Methodist put it, it gave a sense of spiritual integration to his life. I’m willing to offer up my fears to Christ, with the hope that indeed he might use this to bring about the unity for which he prayed.

[continued on next post]
« Last Edit: October 07, 2005, 01:47:56 PM by roj »
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ELCA Churchwide Assembly--Status Quo (Part 5)
« Reply #4 on: October 07, 2005, 01:40:30 PM »
[continued from previous post]

The pig in a poke sidebar

My heart was strangely cooled, though, by Renewing Worship (RW). The assembly overwhelmingly bought this pig in a poke by approving a motion to complete the liturgical review of the proposed new (red!) worship book, to be called Evangelical Lutheran Worship. Those of orthodox sentiments who have perused the proposed hymn list (posted on the RW web site for several weeks) have had great fun finding the most egregious examples of silly hymn revisions.

My personal favorite, though it doesn’t result from the pernicious and omnipresent “neuter the language” agenda, is in the second verse of Away in a Manger, wherein “The little Lord Jesus, our crying he takes.” They say this is for theological reasons, which I interpret to mean that “no crying he makes” is implicit docetism or something. They let slide the line about “look down from the sky.”

This action could have great impact on local congregations, touching, as it does, on what they all do every Sunday. Of course, that assumes that local congregations in fact will actually buy this book, and I don’t think that’s a slam dunk. Indeed, there were a few cynics who applauded approval of the book because it might force Augsburg Fortress into bankruptcy. One needn’t be that mean-spirited to have doubts about the financial feasibility of a new hymnal in a time when more and more congregations produce their own worship booklets.

The reorganized down-sizing sidebar

The ELCA down-sized restructuring proposal also went through with hardly a peep — well, actually, there were a couple of peeps worth noting. One was the angst expressed by Gettysburg Seminary President Michael Cooper-White (a onetime assistant to a presiding bishop or two), who pointed out that the proposal means people will lose their jobs. Well, gee whiz, that’s what down-sizing means. The assembly was assured that all the churchwide staff will have opportunity to apply for the new (if fewer) jobs in the reorganized structure. And, besides, the ELCA is being very, very compassionate and understanding and helpful about all this.

The more serious peep was from supporters of the Commission for Women, which vanishes, like, poof! in the new structure. Actually it becomes a “women’s desk” somewhere. The strongest objection came from ethnic minority women. They made it quite clear that the Commission for Women has been far more helpful to them than the Commission for Multicultural Ministries. Ouch. Multicultural Ministries, by the way, escapes essentially unscathed. It becomes a “program unit” now on par with other units like global missions.

But even the partisans for the Commission for Women bowed to the inevitable. No one offered a motion to restore the commission, so nobody had to vote specifically to kill it off.

The ethnic strategies sidebar

Well, this was Mom and apple pie stuff, approved overwhelmingly. The “ethnic strategies” plan is the ELCA’s road map to increase evangelical outreach to persons of African Descent, and to Arab and Middle Eastern persons. (If your ethnic group is not mentioned here, be assured previous assemblies have approved strategies for other communities.) I didn’t hear anyone mention our abysmal failure to meet that 1987 goal that 10 percent of the ELCA membership would be “persons of color and language other than English” by 1997. Putting it charitably, maybe we’ve recognized that you don’t just set goals, you have to have a strategy.

Whether these strategies will work, that’s the question. I sincerely hope they will, though I admit to doubts. The African Descent strategy, for example, runs to thirteen pages and was largely the work of Julius Carroll, director for African American Ministries. It’s chock full of revolutionary ideas, like the one encouraging congregations to “extend an open hand of fellowship to all people with respect and dignity regardless of race, color, or culture.” Not that I’m against that, of course, but I do wonder if that’s really, well, specific enough.

Indeed, the only measurable goal in the document is that within 10 years we’ll have at least 100 “additional visionary pastoral leaders of African descent preparing or prepared to serve African-descent Lutheran congregations.” That’s a grand idea, especially considering that only slightly more than half of the ELCA’s present African descent “rostered leaders” are actually serving real congregations.

Left unnoted here is the elephant in the room among multicultural ministry advocates. There is some tension, though that may be an understatement, between old line African- American leaders and the growing number of recent African immigrants. The needs, concerns, and priorities of the second are significantly different than those of the first. African immigrants have not always felt that the African-American agenda has much at all to do with them.


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« Last Edit: October 07, 2005, 01:49:16 PM by roj »
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ELCA Churchwide Assembly--Status Quo (Part 6)
« Reply #5 on: October 07, 2005, 01:41:29 PM »
[continued from previous post]

The anti-Israeli strategy sidebar

One unpredicted controversy arose in Orlando: there was behind the scenes jockeying over a proposed Strategy for Engagement in Israel and Palestine. Several voting members felt the document had a decidedly anti-Israeli tilt. They showed up at an open hearing on the strategy asking some difficult questions. Finding the answers unsatisfactory, they drafted alternative language which moderated considerably the perceived anti-Israeli tone of the document.

After what these rebels regarded as stonewalling by churchwide staff members, ELCA Vice-President Carlos Peña called a special meeting of the church council to consider the proposed changes. Most were accepted, and a significantly revised resolution was printed and brought to the floor. Once there, one additional amendment was approved. The result was a resolution that some in the Jewish community described as “not as bad as what other mainline Protestant denominations have done” — damning with faint praise, to be sure. I was encouraged that on at least one issue, the recommendation brought by the powers-that-be could actually be substantively changed at the initiative of plain old voting members.

What next

Now where do we go from here? As I said, the ship seems to have held together, at least for the moment. Luther Seminary professor James Nestingen’s public assessment was less sanguine. At Orlando, he said, the ELCA “came apart.” That seems to me an overstatement for now, though it may yet prove true. On sexuality, the present ambiguity cannot last forever, and much will depend on whether the bishops are able to provide leadership, both by deciding what their own 1993 words meant and mean, and by agreeing among themselves that the church has spoken on the ordination question, and the standards should be enforced. A continued lack of leadership from the Conference of Bishops will only cause matters to deteriorate.

Leadership vacuum

And where there is a leadership vacuum, there is no shortage of people and groups trying to fill it. Some of those, truth be told, didn’t look too impressive in Orlando. Goodsoil, frankly, overplayed their hand in the view of many. They adopted a strategy of clumsy intimidation. Their floor demonstration certainly angered voting members, but even before that, voting members had to negotiate their way through a phalanx of rainbow-sashed “greeters” just to get to the floor. Likely, these tactics alienated many who might have been potential sympathizers.

Indeed, gay advocates made themselves something of a caricature. The day after the vote, a voting member arose on the assembly floor and — claiming the often abused “personal privilege” —solemnly announced there were vested “Extraordinary Candidacy Committee pastors” waiting out in the lobby, ready to provide “pastoral care” to anyone grieving over the previous day’s decision. I did not know it was possible for an entire assembly to roll its eyes, but that is about what happened. I strolled out to the lobby a couple of times, just to check how the counseling was going; no long lines.

Still, Goodsoil spokesman Jeff Johnson claims that the “trajectory” (that’s his oft-repeated media-ready sound-bite word) is for justice and full inclusion. Of course he has a particular understanding of justice and inclusion that many do not share. But lacking any positive, forceful leadership by the Conference of Bishops, he may yet be right, by default.

[continued on next post]
« Last Edit: October 07, 2005, 01:50:18 PM by roj »
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ELCA Churchwide Assembly--Status Quo (Part 7)
« Reply #6 on: October 07, 2005, 01:42:41 PM »
[continued from previous post]

Solid Rock

The more conservative groups weren’t too impressive, either, all told. The Solid Rock coalition fell down, in the view of some, in its pre-Assembly organizing and was ill prepared for all the twists and turns at the assembly — despite an elaborate system of floor captains, regular caucuses, and other such convention strategies. If they won a victory — and that is how they interpret it — it was almost in spite of themselves.

Meanwhile, Word Alone, the group which developed years ago during the controversy about the historic episcopate, was also present, participating in the Solid Rock coalition but maintaining its own identity. There was some tension there. Word Alone’s agenda is more comprehensive than Solid Rock’s (which confined itself to the sexuality issues), but they didn’t appear able to advance it much. They were opposed to Renewing Worship, for instance, but there wasn’t a word from them during the floor debate.

One fascinating behind-the-scenes story was a meeting between two World Alone leaders and Gerald Kieschnick, president of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod. (Kieschnick was present to bring greetings and did so, I thought, with great grace, integrity, and forthrightness — especially given the fact that the Goodsoil demonstrators were still standing in front of the dais as he spoke). Nobody’s talking about the results of this meeting, except to say that Kieschnick is interested in what Word Alone is doing, and they have agreed to keep in touch.

We said it was behind-the-scenes, true. But there was nothing secretive about it. Bp. Hanson was reportedly fully aware of the conversation. Do not look for mass defections to the LCMS any time soon, but the fact that such talks can take place — especially so when Word Alone’s president is an ELCA clergywoman — is a strong indication of the present instability within American Lutheranism.

Hanson in charge

One must also say that Bp. Hanson seems more than ever to be fully in charge of things at the churchwide level. Restructuring the ELCA — pretty much his show, by the way — gives him greater control in several key areas. Nonetheless, his gracious, charming, and skillfully fair presiding makes it easy to trust him, as the long ovation he got at the end of the assembly demonstrated. There are grumblings of a less gracious nature. Specifically that he has aggressively pushed the sexual revisionist agenda (and other liberal causes) very, very hard within the Conference of Bishops and among Chicago staff. Some of that undercurrent may be inspired by envy, distrust, or by political or theological disagreement, to be sure. But I heard it from enough different directions, and from enough different people, to feel still uneasy about where he may try to lead us.

Coming out in the same place

The ELCA went into Orlando with hopes and fears, and it comes out pretty much in the same place. Time now once again to offer them up to God, and remember always the church belongs to Christ and not to us, Christ's promises will be fulfilled by him, and in his good time. At the end of the day, that’s all we can do — along with that prayer that we don’t much like to pray: “We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.” — by Richard O. Johnson, associate editor

Copyright 2005 ALPB
« Last Edit: October 07, 2005, 01:51:19 PM by roj »
The Rev. Richard O. Johnson, STS

Coolrevgaus

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Re: ELCA Churchwide Assembly--Status Quo (Oct. 200
« Reply #7 on: October 14, 2005, 09:08:33 PM »
I am not sure who the "some" are who thought that Solid Rock could have done a better job, maybe you would like to quote your source. Perhaps they would like to have run the Solid Rock office which consisted of one great half-time person, Roy Harrisville, or maybe have contributed to it financially, since actually it was nobly supported by two congregations. The problem with us confessionlaist types is that we talk the talk but too often really don't walk the walk-want to support the ELCA give to the new Association instead of it and help save it from itself. Honestly ALPB has become way too much the armchair critique with a real ignorance of the news behind the news.