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Do ELCA leaders stand by their votes?

by Gracia Grindal (WordAlone board member)

March 5, 2004

From hints here and there, and now several letters and news releases, it feels as if the leadership of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) has been shaken by the continuing turmoil in the ELCA. Several events point to it.

Over the past few months the Conference of Bishops of the ELCA has devoted time, according to press releases from the ELCA, to the issue of ordination and most specifically, the problem of lay presidency, or non-ordained people’s saying the words of institution at the Lord's Supper. While it is important for the bishops to discuss these issues, it does not appear, from a news release, that they studied the work in the late 1980s and early 1990s of the Task Force for the Study of Ministry. A report was prepared by 17 members of the ELCA, and passed overwhelmingly, with a significant amendment against ordaining deacons, by the 1993 Churchwide Assembly.

The Task Force met several times a year for five years to discuss these issues. It came to the conclusion, after spending some $1.2 million, that the traditional Lutheran notion of one office of ordained ministry was the best for the ELCA, despite heavy pressure from many of the ecumenical leaders of the church to adopt a three-fold office of ordained ministry. The three-fold ministry would have made it easier for the ELCA to enter into full communion with The Episcopal Church USA, (ECUSA). Included in that document was a clear statement allowing lay presidency. This was a restatement of the policy of the preceding church bodies.

Do the current bishops recall this document, or their 1999 Tucson resolution that affirmed once again that they did not understand CCM to affect the practice of lay presidency in the ELCA? Do that Task Force document or the Tucson resolution have any force in the ELCA today?

The Tucson Resolution was not attached to CCM in the ECUSA convention notebooks at its 2000 General Convention when it approved CCM. Most at the ECUSA Convention were not aware of the Tucson Resolution or its contents. ECUSA Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold ruled that the Episcopal bishops did not need to read the Tucson Resolution before they approved CCM. If the ECUSA bishops had read the resolution, would they have voted for CCM? The Tucson resolution, especially the language about lay presidency, violated what they understood to be the essence of the agreement: The ELCA in adopting the full communion agreement was adopting ECUSA theology and practice of ministry.

Do the bishops of the ELCA still hold to the Tucson resolution? If they do, are they discussing it at their meetings? We have heard that the practice of lay presidency has been limited by ELCA bishops afraid to offend their Episcopalian colleagues. If this is true, one wonders what force any resolution by the bishops has for them or the ELCA.

The list of presenters at the latest meeting of the Conference of Bishops included no scholar representing the traditional Lutheran side of this debate. Did anyone there recall the Task Force for the Study of Ministry report, or the Tucson Resolution? Once again, the bishops, who had the chance to host a brisk debate on the issue, have been poorly served by their leadership, which seems to fear presenting them with scholars who disagree.

It is a matter of some concern. How much does the leadership of the ELCA follow its previous statements and agreements? What kind of corporate memory is there of such agreements and statements? How selectively does the leadership recall and feel constrained by previous legislation? For example, who was the bishop representing the ELCA at the elevation of Bishop Robinson in New Hampshire? Called to Common Mission, (CCM) requires that there be at least one bishop from the other church in all succeeding ordinations of bishops.

Can the ELCA leadership decide that it does not have to follow its resolutions when they become inconvenient and potentially political footballs? It continues to contribute to an eroding confidence in our leadership who appear to suffer selective amnesia concerning previous agreements.

It will be interesting to see how this habit plays out in quite another matter, the most neuralgic of the day, the sex issue. Bishop Peter Rogness has written a letter to his synod suggesting there be no vote on the sexuality document at the 2005 convention, and Herbert Chilstrom, former bishop of the ELCA, is said to agree with him. It is too divisive, they are both arguing. Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson expresses his unease and fear about the divisions in the church in his latest column in “The Lutheran.” Hanson seems to be almost paralyzed by what he senses is coming. Is he beginning to realize that he does not want to preside over the break up of the ELCA?

Can the leadership, who in the past have not seemed to care about their own legal documents, stop the rush toward a vote in Orlando next summer? There will be those who argue it is impossible to stop the vote because it was approved by a prior assembly. In the past, if the leadership has wanted something, they have found ways to get it, regardless of the legal documents or the prevailing opinion of the members of the ELCA. It will be interesting to watch what happens as the bishops of the ELCA face the political reality that the church could split over the question. How they choose to interpret their own documents will reveal their fundamental values and will be very interesting to watch.