(Looking for information on the 2009 ELCA Churchwide Assembly and information regarding pastors in same-gender, life-long, monogamous relationships? Click here for that blog.)
After following the ELCA Churhwide Assembly this past week, I saw the title of a Yahoo! News article (written by Reuters and now circulated everywhere), “Lutherans to allow pastors in gay relationships,” and thought to myself, “That’s not quite what happened.” While it was passed by the assembly, via this motion (by the bishop of my “current,” technically, synod), that bishops should show restraint in disciplining pastors in “faithful committed same-gender relationships,” it did not, in fact, change any policy or policies of the ELCA. In fact, motions to actively seek a change in policy were defeated, largely, from what I can tell, due to a desire to wait until a social statement on sexuality is developed for the 2009 assembly (to be held in Minneapolis). Additionally, after about 40% of the voting members had already left, it was passed a motion for ELCA bishops to discuss their own accountability to “the adopted policies, practices, and procedures of the ELCA,” seeming in a response to the first motion which, in simple language, told bishops it’s OK if you decide to break the rules (or let others do so).
So what? The assembly seemed to say that we (the entire 4.8 million members of the ELCA, as represented by the assembly) aren’t ready to make formalized changes of policies and procedures, but if certain areas (via their bishops) don’t want to abide by the rules established, then we’ll accept that. As Phil Souchy of Lutherans Concerned said, it’s basically a call by the assembly saying, “Do not do punishments.” Now while this doesn’t technically change anything, it’s an obvious step in a new direction and a likely indicator of where the ELCA is headed. There is technically no “official” change, but the Yahoo! News article’s title would have you think there had been. It’s truly the title which sells you on the article, and if you only read the title (and maybe even if you read the article, too), it’s easy to get the wrong picture about what transpired @ Navy Pier in Chicago. (A Chicago Sun-Times online article, “Gay clergy OK’d by Evangelical Lutheran Church in America,” has a similar title shock value effect.)
Are you still asking “What does this all mean?” Some might say this is a procedural ploy to allow gays in committed relationships to continue on in their positions without actually changing the rules, and I surely wouldn’t disagree with them. The current policy continues to officially require pastors (and I believe other rostered leaders, though don’t quote me on that) in same-sex relationships to be removed from the rostered rolls (which has happened 3 times thus far) and does not allow seminary students in such relationships to be ordained into such roles either. In a way, the motion passed by the assembly is a way to help bishops feel more comfortable supporting and not reprimanding gay or lesbian pastors currently serving churches who are in committed relationships . It still allows bishops to call for disciplinary hearings, but it, in reality, puts the onus on the bishop to make the decision whether to allow the pastor to continue on in their position or not, a state which was really already true but not openly supported by the ELCA as is now the case.
While I support the ordination and rostering of people in same-sex relationships, it will take me some time to decide if I agree with the motion the assembly passed. If I had been a voting member, I’m not sure if I would have voted for or against the motion. It definitely puts control of the situation in a more regional context, which I think may be the best answer, but was this the right step to take at the current time? I don’t know. In any case, it was an interesting day for the ELCA, and it will likely be a very interesting road ahead as pastors, church leaders, and congregations in and outside the ELCA react to these events.
(I could throw in ways in which I see these actions as paralleling, in some ways, the occurrences that led to Seminex, but I’ll leave those thought for another day.)