Because there were a number of very important actions taken at the ELCA Churchwide Assembly 2009, I thought it would be best to share those with a very informal report to you.
A few items make me especially proud to be an ELCA Lutheran, but they will not make headlines: funding for the HIV/AIDS strategy, the launch of the Lutheran Malaria Initiative, and full communion with the United Methodist Church. Also, changes to the ELCA constitution that call for fuller representation of youth in congregational, synod, and churchwide expressions and initiation of the process to have a Social Statement on Justice for Women to be presented at the 2015 Churchwide Assembly.
The items that are more likely to appear on the news are the social statement and the vote on Ministry Policy recommendations, both presented from the Task Force that has been working for 8 years on creating these carefully crafted documents. Input from individuals and congregations was included, through several rounds of drafts and inquiries throughout the ELCA. This is the first social statement that has affirmed gay and lesbian Lutherans with support and acceptance. It does so with a lot of careful language reminding us that the church is not of concensus on this issue, that people of faith do come to differing conclusions on the issue of lifelong, mongamous, same-gender relationships. But it leaves a very wide berth for congregations such as Ebenezer to provide pastoral ministry to lifelong, mongamous, same-gender relationships as we see fit. See below for an important paragraph from the document:
"Although at this time this church lacks consensus on this matter, it encourages all people to live out their faith in the local and global community of the baptized with profound respect for the conscience-bound belief of the neighbor. This church calls for mutual respect in relationships and for guidance that seeks the good of each individual and of the community. Regarding our life together as we live with disagreement, the people in this church will continue to accompany one another in study, prayer, discernment, pastoral care, and mutual respect."
Resolutions 1-4 regarding changes in ministry policies were proposed by the task force to be dealt with in a successive approach, where 2 would only be voted on after 1 was passed, and so on (the "stairstep" approach). Since Robert's Rules does not allow for such an approach, we had to vote on whether to agree to the stairstep or take them separately. We voted to consider them separately (with Goodsoil's wholehearted support), and we also voted to re-order them. All of these could pass with a simple majority because they were policy changes, not constitutional changes or social statements (which both require 2/3rds vote). [As a point of reference, ordaining women garnered only 57% of the vote at a 1970 assembly.]
Resolution 1 (formerly #3): RESOLVED, that in the implementation of any
resolutions on ministry policies, the ELCA commit itself to bear one another’s burdens, love the neighbor, and respect the bound consciences of all. Passed YES-771; NO-230
Resolution 2 (formerly #1): RESOLVED, that the ELCA commit itself to
finding ways to allow congregations that choose to do so to recognize, support, and hold publicly accountable lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships. Passed YES-619; NO-402
Resolution 3 (formerly #2) did the same as Resolution 2, but for rostered leaders within this church. Passed YES-559; NO-451
Resolution 4 basically made provision to put all ministry-related, candidacy-related documents into line with Resolutions 1-3. Passed YES-667; NO-307. One "resolved" was added, which doesn't change the substance, but definitely made those in opposition feel more comfortable: "RESOLVED, that the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America make provision in its policies to recognize the conviction of members who believe that this church should not call or roster people in a publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same gender relationship."
What does this mean?
1) Does it mean that the Extraordinary Lutheran Ministry roster would seek to exist? While they will definitely have some work to sort through what this means for them, and there is hope that their numbers will dwindle as pastors join the ELCA roster, I do not believe that ELM will be able to disappear completely (and surely not right now).
2) Does this mean pastors removed from the roster can be re-instated? Probably, but again, there are a lot of processes and procedures to figure out before any large-scale re-instatements can occur. It is likely that someone starting the candidacy process now or in seminary currently will be able to be more honest beginning this very minute than they would have been before. But the ELCA Church Council and Vocation and Education unit have a lot of hard work ahead of them before large-scale changes can be implemented.
3) Does this mean that congregations will be forced to accept gay/lesbian pastors in committed relationships? No. But it means that congregations that choose to do so will not face discipline or pressure from their synods or churchwide. There is still question about how to deal with it when a synod bishop is opposed, but one of his/her congregations wants to call such a pastor. Hard to know how that will play out. But it leaves a lot of freedom for those of us who do choose to be open to all rostered leaders to do so (especially with the support of our bishop).
4) Does this mean that we're in less hot water with the synod over our constitutional changes? Probably! Again, this all has to get lived out and sorted out together in community, but this does put us much more in line with full ELCA policy. Ebenezer's leaders will have to do more talking about the specifics of what this means for Ebenezer, but Bishop Miller was encouraged by the way this policy change could help keep us and the synod connected.
5) What else you need to know: Within the ELCA, there is a lot of pain over this decision by those opposed to policy change. You know their arguments; you know why they are opposed. But you may not know the depth of the pain that they are feeling over this decision. It does not negate the celebration of the rest of us, but we must temper that celebration with the realization that this could be a tough time for the ELCA, as we try to remain united amidst very stark divisions. I echo the prayers of many of my GLBTQ brothers and sisters, who begged us to pray for those who were so disheartened by this vote. We know what it's like to feel disenfranchised, unaccepted by our church, and in the minority, so our hearts feel their pain.
I want to close with Bishop Hanson's words, spoken immediately after the vote was announced. There was crying - from those on both sides of the issue - disbelief that it had finally happened for some, and sorrow for a church that feels like it's slipping away for others. Bishop Hanson led with incredible grace and he is a unifying power in the ELCA. He quoted three different Bible passages - one for those who were opposed, one for those who were in favor, and one for those who feel caught in the middle, unsure of what this means for them, their congregations, and their synods. This quote follows those pastoral scriptural passages.
"That passage gives invitation and expectation that those deeply disappointed today will have in this church the expectation and the freedom to continue to admonish and to teach. And so, too, those that have experienced reconciliation today, you are called to humility. You are called to clothe yourselves with love. But we're all called to let the peace of Christ rule in our hearts, remembering again and again that we are called in the one body. I will invite you tomorrow afternoon into important, thoughtful, prayerful conversations about what all of this means for our life together. But what is absolutely important for me is that that's a conversation we have together.
"I ended my oral report with these words: "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.
"Let us pray. O God, gracious and holy, mysterious and merciful, we meet this day at the foot of the cross and there we kneel in gratitude and awe that you have loved us so much that you would give the life of your Son so that we might have life in his name. Send your spirit this night, the spirit of the Risen Christ that has been breathed into us. May it calm us. May your Spirit unite us. May it continue to gather us. In Jesus' name, Amen."