The Bishops' Angst (Part 1)

Started by Richard Johnson, December 17, 2004, 10:39:45 AM

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Richard Johnson

The Bishops' Angst

(An On-line Forum Letter article)

On occasion Forum Letter has been accused of being preoccupied with the sexuality discussions in the ELCA. We don't really think we're that preoccupied, but we're not so sure about The Lutheran. Take the November issue, for instance. In an article on the fall meeting of the ELCA Conference of Bishops, the magazine ran a striking photo of Cardinal Walter Kasper addressing the bishops. Kasper is the president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, and his presence, the article claims, was the highlight of the meeting. The first eight paragraphs of the article outline Kasper's presentations. All well and good.

But what is the headline on the article? "ELCA bishops meet with sexuality task force." Well, sex sells, we know, and bishops talking about sex probably isn't the best photo op. Besides, the conversation took place in closed session, and we don't begrudge them that, really. We wouldn't want any word about the bishops' angst over this issue to leak out.

But they went back on the record with public reports from the "small groups" of bishops who met with sexuality task force members. We sort of wish they hadn't, because the comments as reported the The Lutheran only discourage us all the more. Let's start with this quote: "If a way to avoid an up or down decision can be found, that's the way we'd prefer." We suspect a lot of the bishops would prefer that we hadn't started down this 1.5 million dollar road to begin with, but that can't be undone now. Avoiding a vote seems to us to be a singularly unhelpful thing to prefer at this stage of the game. It would mean three things: continued chaos as different synods and individual pastors and congregations go on making their own rules; continued contention as we keep the issue alive and well; and widespread disgust among partisans on both sides who have been told that a decision would be made and we could get on with things.

One group, we are told, suggested completing the sexuality social statement, due in 2007, before making decisions on ordination and same-sex blessings. That was a really good suggestion when a number of people made it back at the beginning of this whole process, and we never did understand the logic of deciding what we're going to do first, and then talking about what we think about it. But bringing this up now, virtually on the eve of the 2005 Churchwide Assembly, smacks of desperation (with good reason).

The bishops "have come to new places of understanding the issues after 10 or 12 years of talking," said one group. Ah, yes. We rather thought that "new places of understanding" had become fairly common among the bishops. In a way, we're glad to hear them say so. Honesty is always commendable, though there's something to be said for the old places of understanding, too. "No one," Jesus said, "after drinking old wine desires new wine."

"How can we expect the church to come to a new place in six sessions?" asked the same group. Interesting question, but it begs a further question: just exactly who is it that expected the church to "come to a new place," anyway? It certainly sounds like that particular group of bishops and task force members did—maybe most of the bishops, since they've "come to new places of understanding." And here we thought there wasn't any particular desired outcome, that this was a genuine study of the issues, and at least open to the possibility that the teaching of the church for the last 20 centuries might just be valid.

(continued in next post)
The Rev. Richard O. Johnson, STS

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