As the Churchwide Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) gathered in Minneapolis Wednesday to debate passing a social statement on human sexuality, a storm raged outside the convention center. The steeple of nearby Central Lutheran Curch was damaged, the cross atop the spire dangling precariously. Perhaps ironically, the church had been scheduled to host a Eucharistic service that evening sponsored by a lobbying group in favor of changing the denomination's standards and practices regarding homosexuality.
It would be hard to come up with a better metaphor for the 4.8-million-member denomination, which voted yesterday—by exactly the 2/3 majority needed—to approve the statement.
The new statement is a masterwork of ambiguity and specious theological reasoning. Long-held positions on marriage and sexual intercourse are generalized to the point of making them meaningless. For instance, where the ELCA once claimed that "marriage is the appropriate place for sexual intercourse," the new statement simply "opposes non-monogamous, promiscuous, or casual sexual relationshps." Pastors and laity who might disagree on what is the appropriate standard of behavior are asked to respect the "bound conscience" of each other, which all but eliminates the possibility of discipline of pastors, churches or bishops who choose to ordain or call non-chaste homosexual pastors or perform same-sex "marriages."
The results of the vote do not bode well for those who wish to maintain current standards. A vote schedule for Friday on ministry standards could codify the recognition of actively homosexual pastors (which in several locations has been performed with the implicit approval of synodical officials), and requires only a simple majority for passage. (And yes, that does mean that—prior to Wednesday's vote—it was entirely possible that the church's practice regarding homosexual behavior could have been changed, while the social statement that supported that position was defeated.)
A friend of mine, a member (like me) of the more conservative Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, confessed to me that he was fascinated by the goings-on with the ELCA, "in a watching-your-neighbor's-house-burn-down kind of way." In my case, it is more like watching the church of my childhood—the body in which I was baptized and confirmed—burn to the ground. And while I am no longer a member of an ELCA congregation, there is a feeling that something very dear to me has been altered beyond all recognition.
It remains to be seen what long-term ramifications this will have on the ELCA as a body. Some suggest the church is following the path of the Episcopal Church, which has been torn apart by the conflict, and continues to hemorrhage members, congregations, and even whole dioceses. Already, the 13th largest congregation in the ELCA—Community of Joy in Arizona—has announced its exit from the denomination. A number of the largest congregations have been active in the fight to maintain traditional standards on sex and marriage, and are likely to join suit. And this follows a period of record membership loss for the denomination.
This morning, many Lutherans awoke to find they belong to a church that no longer resembles the one they once knew. And yet, those of us who count ourselves as Lutherans know that the Church will eventually emerge victorious—with or without the ELCA. While the steeple has been damaged, the Church survives.