If ELCA members thought the questions of blessing same-sex relationships or ordaining practicing homosexuals as pastors had been decided at the 2005 churchwide assembly, and that those questions--and sexuality in general--weren't going to come up at the 2007 Churchwide Assembly because voting on a proposed social statement on sexuality was delayed until 2009, they were wrong.
Whether by accident or plan, those two disputes in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America have recently received big pushes that likely will bring them before the 2007 assembly in Chicago in August.
The 2005 churchwide assembly passed a deliberately ambiguous statement on blessing same-sex relationships that allowed proponents and opponents of such blessings to interpret the vote as either outlawing the blessings or giving local option on doing the blessings. The assembly's action said that the ELCA would "continue to respect the guidance of the 1993 statement of the Conference of Bishops," which disapproved of a ceremony for the blessing of a homosexual relationship. However, the approved statement also called for pastors and churches to provide pastoral care "for all to whom they minister." The assembly defeated all attempts to clarify the statement as either approving or disapproving of blessings.
After the assembly, WordAlone Network President Jaynan Clark Egland asserted that the assembly had seemingly ruled out such blessings while in reality had "propped the door open firmly" to allow the blessings in some synods.
The assembly rejected a recommendation from the then-existing sexuality task force and ELCA Church Council to allow ordinations of pastors in same-sex relationships in certain cases.
When the 2005 assembly adjourned it may have left the impression with some in the ELCA that issues surrounding homosexual behavior would be given a rest until 2009.
However, that probably won't be the case because a hearing committee on the discipline of ELCA Pastor Bradley Schmeling, a practicing homosexual, announced its decision this week. On first appearance their decision seems to support present ELCA guidelines against allowing practicing homosexuals to serve as pastors. Their decision calls for Schmeling to be removed from the ELCA roster a few days after this year's churchwide assembly.
But, the hearing committee suggests an appeals committee might find some of the present guidelines outside provisions of the ELCA constitution and if it doesn't, the committee urges the 2007 synod assemblies to memorialize the churchwide assembly to act to eliminate provisions that prohibit practicing homosexuals from ordination or serving as pastors or professional lay ministers.
Schmeling serves an ELCA church in Atlanta, St. John's in Midtown, and told his bishop last March that he was living in a same-sex relationship. The bishop filed discipline charges, which led to a hearing last month.
The hearing committee stated the present ELCA guidelines are a "bad policy." The committee was composed of six ELCA leaders from the Southeastern Synod's discipline committee and six from the ELCA churchwide discipline committee. As specified in the ELCA constitution, Schmeling chose two of the six from the churchwide committee and the executive committee of the ELCA Church Council chose the other four.
If the policy were to be changed this summer, presumably Schmeling would not be removed from the ELCA clergy roster.
Also sure to bring discussion and attention to the dispute over homosexual behavior is a document received in the mail by leaders in the New England Synod the first week in February. That synod's council had approved the document in December 2006. In this document, "Guidance for Pastors and Congregations of the New England Synod, ELCA, Regarding the Blessing of Unions of Same-Sex Couples," the New England Synod not only gives explicit approval to pastors and churches to do the blessings, but also provides an order of service for the blessings.
This synod's action takes advantage of the ambiguous action approved by the 2005 ELCA churchwide assembly regarding blessing same-sex relationships and contradicts the assembly's call for continuing respect for the 1993 bishops' statement disapproving of blessing ceremonies. Surely the New England Synod's action will be brought by someone to the ELCA Church Council this spring or the 2007 churchwide assembly for possible clarification, acceptance or rejection.
Clark Egland commented today, "The fog has lifted in less than two years and the intentional ambiguity of the churchwide actions in Orlando in 2005 regarding this issue has come to fruition. I think the 'fruit' is an apple and it is as old as Eden. Do these church leaders really believe they know the difference between good and evil so much so that they can redefine it apart from the Word of God?
"Since when is pastoral care defined as leaving people in their sin and then creating a service to bless it?"
"ELCA leaders in the New England Synod, and in the Southeastern Synod and churchwide discipline committees, have with these actions, shown their complete disregard for the authority of the Word of God in all matters of faith and life," said Egland. "They are determined to take the place of God and decide what is sin and what isn't."
WordAlone Director Mark Chavez added, "The hearing committee, like all ELCA committees dealing with the sexuality matters, is lopsided in support of approving homosexual relationships. It says that if the ELCA policy was changed, 'this committee would find almost unanimously that Pastor Schmeling is not engaged in conduct that is incompatible with the ministerial office, and would find with near unanimity that no discipline of any sort should be imposed against him.'"
Clark Egland added, "Jesus was all about healing and forgiveness and embracing sinners but not their sin. His repeated call to 'Go and sin no more,' though impossible to achieve, still witnesses to his desire for our lives. When did he ever 'green flag' the church to move ahead in this manner?"
"The irony of these actions in New England and Atlanta is that they run counter to the ELCA's professed desire to be an ecumenical church," said Chavez. "These actions will further cut off the ELCA from most other Lutheran churches in the world not to mention most Christian churches in the world--the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox churches, the Anglican Communion and all evangelical churches."
"This intentional disobedience shows little care for all the members of the body of Christ in the ELCA," Chavez said. "The leaders in New England and on the hearing committee that met in Atlanta do not want to be accountable to the rest of the ELCA and their actions will contribute directly to the further decline of the ELCA."