ELCA header Yesterday, I reported on the ELCA Conference of Bishops and the address of Presiding Bishop, Mark Hanson.  There were substantive measures accomplished as well at the Conference.

At the 2009 Churchwide assembly in August, the ELCA approved a 32 page sexuality statement, which is a broad policy document but without specific procedures.  Similarly, the Convention approved a new ministry policy that will allow congregations to “recognize and support” persons in a “lifelong, monogamous same-gender relationship” and to allow such persons to become ordained clergy, but without specific implementing procedures.  The task of implementing these broad policy statements falls to the Conference of Bishops and the Church Council.

A related question is the status of nearly twenty LGBT clergy who serve ELCA parishes but without official status or recognition.  Such congregations were often censured by the ELCA, and several were actually expelled from the ELCA during the ‘90s.  I previously blogged about these extra ordinem ordinations and congregations.

The Conference of Bishops received letters from Rev. Gerald B. Kieschnick, the President of the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church (LCMS), and Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory, President of the Conference of Catholic Bishops, which encouraged the Conference to refrain from implementing any marriage equality and gay clergy policies, despite the actions of the assembly in August.  These letters evince a lack of understanding about ELCA authority.  The ELCA Churchwide assembly–over a thousand voting members, chosen from conferences and synods around the country, consisting of both laity and clergy–is the ultimate authority in the democratic polity of the ELCA.  Decisions are not made top down by the presiding Bishop nor by the Conference of Bishops nor by the Church Council.  For the Conference of Bishops to ignore the will of the Churchwide assembly would be a serious breach of its authority, and the pleas from the LCMS and the Conference of Catholic Bishops are not merely “stick your nose in our business” interference, but they encourage the Council of Bishops to impose a hierarchy inconsistent with the ELCA constitution.

To their credit, the bishops meeting in conference ignored these pleas and moved forward with the business of the church.  Regarding the extra ordinem clergy, a committee of bishops was formed to engage these extra ordinem pastors and to report back to the Conference of Bishops in time for the January 2010 Academy meeting of the bishops. 

Regarding the implementation of ministry policies, the bishops “requested to see the changes being made to Vision and Expectations and Definitions and Guidelines for Discipline before they are sent to the Church Council for action.  This will put those changes to the bishops in time for their meeting in March, prior to the April meeting of the Church Council,”  according to a press release from Lutherans Concerned North America (LC/NA), the LGBT advocacy group within the ELCA.

Here is the official news release from the ELCA:

The Conference of Bishops of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) reviewed and discussed drafts of possible revisions to ELCA ministry policies during their Oct. 1-6 meeting here. As a result of their discussions, the bishops requested they have another opportunity to review updated revisions, likely to mean that final action on new policy language will not occur before April 2010.

The Conference of Bishops is an advisory body of the church, consisting of the ELCA’s 65 synod bishops, the presiding bishop and secretary.

The 2009 ELCA Churchwide Assembly, which met in August in Minneapolis, directed the church to revise its ministry policies. One revision will make it possible for Lutherans in publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous same-gender relationships to serve as ELCA associates in ministry, clergy, deaconesses and diaconal ministers. The assembly also adopted a social statement on human sexuality.

The Rev. Stanley N. Olson, executive director, ELCA Vocation and Education, said the drafts were the result of collaborative work between staff of the Office of the Secretary, Vocation and Education, and the Committee on Appeals. An implementing resolution in the social statement affects the ELCA Board of Pensions work, he said.

Emily Eastwood, Executive Director of LC/NA, said,

Though we are disappointed that resolution could not be had in time for the November Church Council meeting, the discussions of the bishops were thorough, thoughtful, and revealed a commitment to moving forward to implementation of the decisions of the 2009 assembly.  We went to the meeting of the bishops as a solid coalition of ELM, Goodsoil and Lutherans Concerned/North America.  We are pleased that progress has been made, and that there is a commitment to resolution in time for the April 2010 Church Council meeting.  Particularly, we are pleased that at long last we are being talked with, instead of just being talked about. (emphasis added)

Meanwhile, opponents of the August assembly actions are calling for release of the text of proposed changes and other information for broad church discussion prior to implementation.  Such a request is appropriate, and there is an indication that the ELCA website will soon post detailed information.