Saturday, August 22, 2009

On Gay Issues, ELCA Elects to Embody a Living, Growing Faith

The petulant god that some suggest showed his displeasure Wednesday afternoon by sending strong winds at the time the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) voted to recognize the validity of “chaste, monogamous and lifelong” same-sex relationships, was strangely quiet yesterday when the same ELCA conference voted to lift its ban on sexually active gays and lesbians serving as ministers.

As it turns out, the minuscule number of religious fundamentalists who saw the “finger of God” in the winds that blew down trees on Portland Ave., flooded a highway reconstruction site, smashed windows at the Electric Fetus record store, and caused minor damage to both the Minneapolis Convention Center and Central Lutheran Church in downtown Minneapolis, appear not to be very good “fundamentalists.” After all, as theologian David Weiss pointed out shortly after Wednesday’s storm, they misinterpret the biblical (and symbolic) meaning and significance of strong winds.

Before everyone races to presume that such calamities express God’s anger, let’s remember that for generations far past and far more intuitively attentive to such phenomena, such swirling forces were merely indicative of God’s profound presence.

Reread the description of Mount Sinai in the moments before Moses received the Ten Commandments and it could pass for our afternoon weather report here.

I am not necessarily racing to ascribe God’s hand to our winds, but for anyone who wishes to, let’s be clear that high winds may be required to bring about Pentecost when churches (and convention centers) no longer have open windows making for the Spirit’s easy entry.

And all of this was prelude to about three hours of testy (though mostly civil) conversation about the proposed Sexuality Statement.

When the vote finally came, it passed 676-338.

Yesterday’s vote to lift the church’s prohibition on non-celibate gay clergy passed 559-451, and, as Star Tribune writer Jeff Strickler notes, “makes the ELCA, with 4.8 million members nationwide and 830,000 in Minnesota, the largest denomination in the country to welcome gays into the pulpits without restriction.”

Following is how the Associated Press reports on yesterday’s historic decision.

The nation’s largest Lutheran denomination took openly gay clergy more fully into its fold Friday, as leaders of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America voted to lift a ban that prohibited sexually active gays and lesbians from serving as ministers.

Under the new policy, individual ELCA congregations will be allowed to hire homosexuals in committed relationships as clergy. Until now, gays and lesbians had to remain celibate to serve as clergy. . . .

“I have seen these same-gender relationships function in the same way as heterosexual relationships — bringing joy and blessings as well as trials and hardships,” the Rev. Leslie Williamson, associate pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church in Des Plaines, Ill., said during the hours of debate. “The same-gender couples I know live in love and faithfulness and are called to proclaim the word of God as are all of us.”

Conservative congregations will not be forced to hire gay clergy. Nevertheless, opponents of the shift decried what they saw as straying from clear Scriptural direction, and warned it could lead some congregations and individual churchgoers to split off from the ELCA.

Shortly after the successful vote, the executive director of Lutherans Concerned/North America, Emily Eastwood, issued a statement that, in part, reads:

Today I am proud to be a Lutheran. Supporters and advocates of full inclusion have longed for this day since the inception of the ELCA, and for many of us what seemed like a lifetime. The ELCA has always had gay ministers, now those and all ministers are free to claim who they are and to have the love and support of a lifelong partner, regardless of orientation or gender identity, which is all we ever asked. Policy change is a beginning not the end. We need to change practice as well as policy. Discrimination will diminish over time now. We pledge to work with the church, including with those who would oppose us, for reconciliation to fulfill our collective mission to spread the love of Christ for the sake of the world.

For the first time, the church has recognized the centrality of family in the lives of its LGBT ministers and made provision for the service in ministry of those ministers in committed, lifelong, same-gender relationships, ending the discriminatory two-tier system of the past and holding all ministers to the same high standard in their relationships.

Throughout the recent ELCA conference in Minneapolis, Lutheran CORE (Colition for Reform), a group dedicated to upholding the belief that gay sexual relations are always and everywhere morally wrong, vigorously opposed any development and passage of decisions that recognized the presence of God in the lives, relationships, and ministries of gay people. Not surprisingly, the members of Lutheran CORE are not happy with either Wednesday’s vote or yesterday’s vote. The group has gone so far as to renounce its recognition by the ELCA as an Independent Lutheran Organization, and are encouraging congregations and members to direct their financial support away from the ELCA. Lutheran CORE leaders have also called for a meeting of “faithful” Lutherans in Indianapolis in September to “discuss what the future for faithful Lutherans in the ELCA might look like and how faithful congregations and individuals can work together.” Of course, by “faithful” the leaders of Lutheran CORE mean the upholding of traditional scriptural denouncement of sexual activity between people of the same gender.

I think the following comment left on the website of the Star Tribune is an example of one good way of responding to those who incessantly harp on about upholding the “inherent Word of God” in scripture.

I saw women voting which is in clear violation of Timothy 1:12 – 15. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing — if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control. Now – perhaps if you bring back the good old fashion stoning I might be able to think of you as being more than JV Catholics. Deuteronomy 21:18-21 (King James Version): If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son, which will not obey the voice of his father, or the voice of his mother, and [who], when they have chastened him, will not hearken unto them, then shall his father and his mother lay hold on him, and bring him out unto the elders of his city, and unto the gate of his place. And they shall say unto the elders of his city, This our son is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton, and a drunkard. And all the men of his city shall stone him with stones, that he die: so shalt thou put evil away from among you; and all Israel shall hear, and fear.

And then there’s this more nuanced response:

Everyone complaining about this decision shows that they lack a basic understanding of what Lutheranism is, and the basics on which the faith was founded. Additionally, by simply claiming “it’s against the Bible” you show a lack of understanding of the minutia of the Bible as well as the ELCA understanding of it.

First, Martin Luther founded the religion based on the idea that ones relationship with God is personal, and rules are based on scripture alone, without need for a church authority to interpret it for you. These leaves each person open to understanding the Bible as God sees fit to help them understand it.

[Second,] if you truly look at the Bible’s New Testament, there is very little about homosexuality at all. When you drill the translations down to the original Aramaic, you can see that there are many possibilities of what a word, sentence and paragraph can actually be translated as. Many scholars believe that the passages that most people believe deal with homosexuality are actually condemning lust, pride and infidelity rather than homosexuality. Additionally, the ELCA has always taught a comprehensive look at the Bible, taking it into an historical context in order to understand the messages as they were written, as well as to understand they way they were translated. This is a fundamental of ELCA seminary.

Additionally, the Bible has many conflicting messages, and ELCA as well as other religions have always had to decide how to deal with those and deciding if one message trumps another. While some places rail against sin, Christ has basically said, “Hey, we all do it and we can try to be better... quit being hypocrites and love each other and appreciate the gifts and calling each of us have that are different.” The way I see this decision is that ELCA has said, “Look, we believed X for a long time, but just because we always have, doesn’t make that right. The way we interpret the Bible and the way it’s translated leaves for a lot of conflicting messages and misunderstanding. We, as people of God, believe that he is always teaching us more, and will remain open to hearing His word even if it conflicts with what we might have previously believed.”

Now that’s a living and growing faith; a mature and adult faith. May it continue to flourish in the ELCA and within all Christian churches.

Recommended Off-site Links:
ELCA Assembly Opens Ministry to Partnered Gay and Lesbian Lutherans - ELVA News Service (August 21, 2009).
Partnered Gay Lutherans Can Be Pastors - Timothy Kincaid (Box Turtle Bulletin, August 21, 2009).
Lutheran Schism in the Making? - Jim Burroway (Box Turtle Bulletin, August 21, 2009).
When Two-Thirds is Too Little: The Mainstream Media and Right-Wing Puppet Masters Report on Lutherans and Gays - William D. Lindsey (Bilgrimage, August 21, 2009).
A Whole New Poetry - David Weiss (Goodsoil Central, August 22, 2009).
On the ELCA’s Historic Shift to Include Gay Clergy: Reflections of a Self-Exiled Lutheran - Eric Reitan (Religious Dispatches, August 25, 2009).

See also the previous Wild Reed post:
Lutherans Model Dialogue on Gay Issues

Image: Michael J. Bayly.


Technology said...

This is quite a dangerous decision. Allowing homosexuals to serve as clergy will confuse a lot of people.

Michael J. Bayly said...

Actually, I think for growing numbers of Christians, not accepting gay people for who they are and allowing them to do things like serve as clergy, is what's confusing.



Anonymous said...


With all due respect, if this move is so impressive, why don't you become a Lutheran? Why cling to the Roman Church? What is distinctive about the RC church that keeps you within Her fold? What do we have that Lutherans don't?

Michael J. Bayly said...

Hi Anonymous,

Roman Catholicism is the faith tradition in which I was born and raised, and which I feel called to use my gifts and talents to reform and renew.

I am drawn and inspired by the Church's unifying and reconciling mission in the world. I also appreciate and am drawn to Catholicism's rich and diverse intellectual, spiritual, and social justice tradition, and its potential to develop and evolve further - clearly, for example, with regard to its understanding of human sexuality.

What keeps me here is this potential and the related need of the Church, my sense of calling to do what I can to embody and facilitate this growth and evolution (and thus unity and reconciliation), and the nurturing and inspiring relationships I have developed with individuals, groups, and communities within the Roman Catholic Church who similarly feel called to the work of reform and renewal.

Finally, Anonymous, perhaps you might find this article helpful in understanding where I'm coming from and why I stay.



William D. Lindsey said...

Technology, I saw that you left the same comment at an article on the Clerical Whispers blog. You obviously have strong feelings about this issue.

But you seem not to understand completely what the ELCA just chose to do. As the article at Clerical Whispers to which you responded stated clearly, Lutherans had ALREADY allowed gay people to serve as clergy.

This decision is to permit gay clergy in lifelong committed partnered relationships to minister.

In what sense is either of those decisions dangerous?

And do you really think that gays do not already serve as clergy--in all churches?

Anonymous said...


Don't worry too much about Technology. He also left comments about this at the Box Turtle Bulletin, and according to William Lindsey, he left comments at another website. I'm not sure I'd waste time or energy on trying to deal with someone who would actually go out of his way to condemn this on multiple blogs!

As for the decision itself, the ECLA did a good thing in my own opinion. It'd be nice to see more denominations follow. Unfortunately, I think the Catholic Church is still a long way from doing what the ECLA did. But who knows where the Holy Spirit will lead us? We just have to keep trusting that God will lead us in the right direction.

James C. said...

Well, if the ELCA is serious, why did they not also institute gay "marriages" in their church? If gay relationships are a blessing now, why no marriage? Does it make sense to require heterosexual ministers to be either married or single while allowing gay ministers to have a live-in unmarried partner?



Religion is all about *truth*, not about where you were brought up or what you "feel." If you do not believe the essential truths taught by a religion, your integrity demands that you leave it for the religion that you DO find true. Because what does everything else matter if a church does not teach the truth? As for "Catholicism's rich and diverse intellectual, spiritual, and social justice tradition," liberal Protestants with whom you seem to agree on almost everything have no qualms about using this tradition themselves. In fact, liberal Anglicans see themselves as carrying that tradition forward in consonance with the modern world.

So why not become an Episcopalian? I suspect it is because you will then have nothing to "struggle" against as a "victim" of ecclesiastical prejudice. But sincerely, the only thing worth struggling against in Christianity is sin. God bless.

jasonbradyut said...

This is just appalling. If Luther, the late German Christian protester, would still be here…where the denomination “Lutherans” derived from, he would be stunned and completely disappointed in this horrible abomination to the Word of God and the Gospel. I totally am against this election. When God created “man” he created Adam and Eve, NOT Adam and STEVE!!! Hello people. This is a direct form of disobedience to God. And this is happening in a Church, a denomination that professes to know the Word of God???? Please, God will have to deal with you guys…and it won’t be pretty.

Michael J. Bayly said...

Sorry, Jason, but I have a hard time taking your comment seriously. If I did, I would have to believe that you take everything in the Bible to be literally true. Thus Christians would be opposed to - and refrain from - charging interest, eating pork and shrimp, wearing garments of mixed fabrics, etc, etc.

All such practices are defined as "abominations" in the Bible. And yet the reality is that Christians do all these things today. Why aren't you railing against these clear examples of "disobedience" to the "Word of God"?

Finally, I think you need to read the "more nuanced response" at the end of my post to the type of (disingenuous, some might say intellectually bankrupt) argument that you're putting forward.



Michael J. Bayly said...


Thanks for sharing your perspective on what you think religion is all about and your theory as to why I remain in the Church. I find neither particularly convincing. (The "univocal" view of truth implied in your comment is especially problematic, as James Carroll notes here.)

I guess we're going to have to agree to disagree.



Paula said...

My friend Katie McCartan had this to say about the ELCA action recently. She is business woman, successful creator of family--wife, mother of 6 grown men, grandmother--life-long Catholic, reflective woman.

"I followed the recent proceedings of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America with a great deal of interest. I was so impressed with their thoughtful and prayerful decision to allow gay pastors in committed relationships to continue with their ministry. I know it was a difficult choice to make and was not without strong opposition. But what a wonderful Christian decision they made. I can't help but feel that if we Christians really believe both Jesus and his Father are about love and understanding for all of His creatures, then He is smiling down on this group. Bravo!"

I can't help but feel that the Holy Spirit is telling us something.