On August 17, the ELCA will meet in biennial assembly in Minneapolis.  In a previous post, a pre-assembly primer, I mentioned the conservative group, WordAlone, and its opposition to the gay marriage and gay clergy proposals that will be considered by the assembly.  WordAlone laments a perceived “theological drift” in the ELCA and offers judgmental accusations in a speech printed on its website:

[T]he ELCA has drifted further and further away from her great Lutheran heritage, to the point that some things being taught and done within our denomination are difficult to recognize as fully Christian, much less solidly Lutheran.

It’s not enough to say “I disagree”; no, it’s better to challenge the Christian heart of others.   Heretics we are, it seems, if we don’t teach and do as they would have us.

WordAlone’s fellow travelers, the COALITION FOR REFORM, Lutheran CORE, promotes the same agenda but seeks  to avoid the possible stigmatizing effects of WordAlone’s conservative history and reputation.  From the “about us” page of CORE’s website:

Lutheran CORE is closely allied with the WordAlone Network for mutual support. However, Lutheran CORE is a broad based coalition and is open to those individuals and congregations who do not choose to affiliate with the WordAlone Network.

Lutheran CORE claims to be the “vast middle” of American Lutheranism, “the solid, faithful core that is the majority” (mindful of Nixon’s silent majority or Jerry Falwell’s moral majority).  Moderate reformers they are not, despite their attempt to claim middle ground.  Their reform is a retrenchment behind conservative pillars.  According to their website, at the top of their list of concerns is the affirmation of “the authority of the Word of God” and “our profound concern over changes in doctrine and practice regarding marriage and sexuality.”  Their website offers a critique of the use of reason in moral deliberations.  In apparent opposition to the ELCA’s  fifty days of prayer initiative, CORE offers its own forty day program.

Their website contains an open letter to assembly delegates that not only opposes the sexuality statement but questions … “if indeed the assembly should be voting on these matters at all.”  Harrumph!  As protectors of the purity of the pulpit and the morality of the marriage bed, theirs is truly a higher calling.

In his characteristic understated manner, the original presiding Bishop of the ELCA, Herbert Chilstrom, has taken CORE to task.  Rev Chilstrom now resides in retirement in St. Peter, Minnesota, and he has penned a letter to assembly delegates in which he rebuts the open letter of CORE, point by point.

First, “I find major problems with the CORE Letter when it speaks about the Word of God,” Chilstrom writes.   “At best, this section is confusing; at worst, misleading.”  Chilstrom points to the recent history of the church allowing the ordination of women despite certain negative Biblical texts and despite long standing church tradition.  “We believed there were deeper streams in the Holy Scriptures that we needed to listen to,” Chilstrom writes about the experience of ordaining women. 

Deeper streams in the Holy Scriptures: the essence of a sophisticated understanding of “The Word of God” and of Luther’s notion of “the canon within the canon.”  Proof texting not allowed.  Questioning the authority of culturally conditioned texts is not rejection of the Word of God.

Second, Chilstrom supports a decision by a majority vote and rejects Core’s call for a supra-majority.  “And why does 2/3 plus one make us more certain the Holy Spirit is guiding us?”  Why not 90%?  Will the naysayers be convinced by any margin?

Third, Chilstrom scoffs at the notion that the assembly risks ecumenical relationships with Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Evangelical Christians, again citing the experience of ordaining women. 

Do you not realize that [ordaining women] was the first nail in the coffin of further ecumenical progress with certain churches? Do you therefore regret our decision to ordain women? Would you support revisiting that decision in order to foster better ties with the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches? 

In his bluntest statement, Chilstrom asks, “How long are we going to live with the illusion that Vatican II is alive and well in Roman Catholicism?”

Fourth, the fear of a double roster, one gay and one straight, is bogus, Chilstrom suggests.  The church has always understood that local parishes have the final say on calling their pastor, and he jokes that there was a time when “just being a Norwegian or a Swede put one into a separate category! Yet, in spite of those multiple ‘lists’ we never forced a congregation to call someone it did not vote to call.”

Fifth and lastly, Chilstrom acknowledges the shrinking membership of mainline denominations but argues that allowing gay clergy will not aggravate the problem; instead, he suggests “a reformation that focuses on the offense of the Gospel of the crucifixion and resurrection and advocates unapologetically for justice for the poor and the disenfranchised.”

Chilstrom at '05 bienniel When the ELCA came into being in 1987 as the result of merger, Bishop Chilstrom was the church’s first pastor, the first shepherd of a flock of some five million.  Thank God for his pastoral leadership then and now.  He concludes his letter:

And that’s why I strongly favor the Statement on Sexuality and the Recommendation coming to the Assembly.  I pray for its passage. I pray it will be a strong message to the world that we are a church that includes rather than excludes those who love our Jesus as intensely as I do – and as you do. Yes, and a church that welcomes as pastors those whose only difference is that they are gay or lesbian and long for a faithful relationship. Binding us together is the sure and certain promise that it is the Holy Spirit who calls, gathers, enlightens and sanctifies the church. We can move through these next weeks with that assurance.