Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Big Changes for Lutherans

If my ELCA colleagues are to be believed, today (or this weekend) is the day that the ELCA will decide on whether to allow homosexual individuals in non-celibate relationships to serve as rostered clergy in the denomination. Regardless of where you are on the issue, today's decision will set a course for the denomination that will not quickly, if ever, be reversed. We in the United Church of Christ has a little experience in this area, having elected to recognize same-sex marriages in the 2005 marriage equality resolution.
I do not wish to engage one side or the other, only what this is going to do to the denomination as a whole. To this end, I read an article in the June 2009 issue of The Lutheran by Paul Schreck, who has served in the ecumenical and interreligions office of the ELCA. With this background, he is sensitive to the ecumenical ramifications of this decision. He correctly identifies that "Some steps in recent decades have restored a high degree of trust and affection between Christians of various traditions." As a UCC minister, I am jealous of the meaningful ecumenical relationships that the ELCA has been able to forge. They continue to be a moderate ecumenical voice, one that needs to be heard with greater clarity.
But these relationships come with a price. When these relationships have the strength that they do, significant, course-altering decisions affect those relationships. Schreck writes, "Astonishingly absent from the discussion [concerning same-sex marriage] is the point that the ELCA doesn't make this decision in a vacuum. We live in interdependent relationships with Lutherans and Christians around the world. Assembly decisions affect those."
Far too often denominations think in a vacuum. The UCC's roots are in this kind of robust ecumenism; who among us would deny Christ's words and our motto, "That they may all be one"? The UCC, more than any other denomination, has been a model of visible Church unity, bringing many Christian bodies under one roof. For a young denomination, their influence was significant and promising for the future.
But it all went awry with the same-sex marriage debates. Rather than think about their relationships with other Christians, a select few made a denomination-altering decision in a vacuum. What has this done to ecumenical dialog? To be honest, few people really take the UCC seriously now, and our robust ecumenical dialog (not just communion agreements) are really only with the far-left Episcopal Church (who is in the process of destroying their own communion). The perception of the UCC, right or wrong, is simply "the church that accepts gays." While you may or may not think that's a good thing, its a tragedy that that's the only thing.
Schreck continues, "There may be appropriate times to break communion with other Christians. But we must be fully aware we are doing it. Dividing the church comes at a price. We must never pretend its not painful." The pain will be significant, and it will last for many decades. Not only will healthy dialog with Catholics, Orthodox, etc. be irreparably damaged, but they can expect a significant exodus from their own denomination. Since the 2005 decision, the UCC has lost over 250 churches, with the number still growing. Is the ELCA prepared for that? On a pragmatic level, can the ELCA survive that kind of exodus in these economic times? And are they prepared to lose the significant ground they've gained in their ecumenical witness? Perhaps they are. Perhaps they've counted the cost. And if they feel that this is indeed following Christ, then it is worth it. But has the Church really advanced if it must make one stand at the cost of another?

At the end of the day it is possible that, from God's perspective, something good will be gained from an affirmation of these sexual issues. But it is certain that something will be lost. From where I'm sitting, that's simply not a risk I'm willing to take. I pray for the ELCA, and ask that the Lord's will be done. Hopefully it is a decision they can live with.

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