On August 17, “1,045 voting members from 65 synods and 10,448 congregations serving on behalf of the 4,709,203 baptized members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America” will convene in Minneapolis for the 2009 biennial assembly. I will be there, too, and I plan to liveblog during the six day event.
There will be worship services, workshops, and plenty more to keep delegates busy, but all eyes will be on the plenary sessions in which the ELCA sexuality statement and LGBT issues will be debated and voted upon. The following is an overview of players and constituencies likely to play major roles or have significant interest in the proceedings.
Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson. In the ecclesiology of the ELCA, this is an elected position for a limited term. The presiding Bishop is largely an administrative position without significant legislative functions. The body of delegates at this and other biennial conventions have ultimate legislative authority.
Church Council (Council of Bishops). Each of the 65 synods has a presiding bishop. As a collective body, the bishops serve as the Church Council, which acts as board of directors and legislative body between biennial assemblies. When the Church Council met late in March, it voted to submit the ELCA sexuality statement to the churchwide assembly for consideration. Significantly, it also set guidelines in which voting decisions on the statement would proceed according to majority vote (opponents of the various measures prefer a 2/3 or supra-majority standard). Of course, since the assembly itself has final legislative authority, these standards could be changed, and early skirmishes over procedures are likely to be telling during the assembly.
Sexuality Study Task Force. At the 2001 biennial assembly, a resolution was passed to create a task force to study and report on a proposed social statement on human sexuality.
Although the composition of the task force has changed over time, it has consisted of 27 appointed persons, most recently under the leadership of Pastor Peter Strommen (formerly the bishop of the NE synod of Mn and a personal friend of mine). The proposed Sexuality Statement is the work product of this task force. Three general comments can be made about the Statement: first, it is generally favorable toward LGBT persons; second, it allows LGBT persons in a committed relationship to become rostered clergy based upon local, congregational option; and, third, it is silent regarding “gay marriage”, but that may also be subject to local congregational decision.
Of course, there are advocacy/interest groups on both sides.
Since 1974, a group called Lutherans Concerned has advocated on behalf of LGBT Lutherans. This group’s official posture regarding the proposed statement is mostly positive since gay clergy will be allowed according to local congregational option but also concerned that the local option rule will also allow pockets of dissent within the ELCA that will fester over time. But the biggest criticism pertains to the absence of “a means of public recognition of same-gender relationships, no rite of blessing or marriage. Unacceptable, but correctable inconsistency.” Press release Feb 19, 2009.
Another organization supportive of LGBT issues is The Lutheran Network for Inclusive Vision, and their website may be found at The Network.
Perhaps the most proactive, pro-LGBT group is Goodsoil, and they solicit assembly delegates and other volunteers to offer a full range of advocacy activities during the assembly. I have joined this group and will volunteer my services during the assembly.
On the right is the well-known conservative movement within the ELCA known as the WordAlone Network. Originally founded in 1996 to resist the ecumenical agreement with the Episcopalian Church, the group has continued over the years to offer a conservative point of view within the ELCA. They now claim a membership of over 6,000 ELCA Lutherans and 1,000 clergy. Their website includes the following statement:
WordAlone’s primary concern is that the ELCA is losing its Christ-centered focus. ELCA churches and members are turning to authorities other than the authority of God’s Word, revealed in his risen Son, Jesus Christ, and in his inspired Word in the Holy Scriptures. The other authorities – human experience, wisdom and tradition – are used to turn aside the authority of God’s Word.
As to the Sexuality Statement specifically, the WordAlone Network claims that the ELCA usurps divine authority.
The usurped authority resolution criticizes the ELCA for voting on matters governed by Divine Law when it has no legitimate authority to do so and for sending proposals that “explicitly reject Scripture’s clear, consistent witness concerning marriage and sexuality” to the churchwide assembly.
It will be an interesting summer in the ELCA, and I will keep you posted from my vantage point on the left side of Northfield, Mn.