Friday, March 28, 2008

Church People Gather to Discuss Sex

I went to a "hearing" on our draft Sexuality Statement last night. Hearings are being held around the church, in our 64 synods. This was actually only the second one, churchwide. I promised to report back to Lutherans Concerned, our friendly advocacy/fellowship/all around good folks organization. So I figured I'd paste part of my report here, after scrubbing some of the names and such. There are some line numbers referenced. If you're really curious, the document is on the ELCA website. So here it is, for any who are interested:

The meeting was at Trinity Lutheran in Lawrence, Kansas. In attendance were 17 total people:

8 were pastors, one of whom is a recent PhD currently applying at seminaries.

5 were laypersons from local congregations: Abiding Peace, North KC; Immanuel, KC; Trinity Lutheran, Lawrence (host congregation--two attended from Trinity--one was our moderator and did a fine job); Peace in Manhattan, Kansas. Abiding Peace is the only RIC church in that list.

1 works out of the Synod office

1 was our synod bishop, Gerald Mansholt (I'm not taking out the bishop's name. It's pretty public :) ).

1 was an assistant to the bishop

1 was adjunct to the Sexuality Task Force until two years ago. The Sexuality Task Force is supposed to have a representative at each hearing, and he was ours, though he said himself that they were "digging deep" in inviting him, and it was probably because the closest Task Force member is in Denver. I was glad he was there, because he is a great straight ally and eloquent speaker. He did not speak much until the end, when he did express some hurt on behalf of the Task Force folks who worked hard on the document. I think we understood his point. He was not able to answer many questions on the document, since he wasn't there when they put it together, so in that way he may not have been the best rep.

As far as I know, I was the only non-heterosexual person in the room.

The Discussion

We took the full two hours allocated, with a little break to move from the large sanctuary to the small chapel, which facilitated much better conversation (and was a lot warmer :) ). The bishop opened us with prayer, and I was asked to say the closing prayer, which I appreciated.

We began by trying to understand what the purpose of a Social Statement is. I'd say there is a lot of confusion around this topic. The church hasn't done a great job of clarifying the role of a Social Statement. The Task Force rep. wasn't quite sure if you could say they're used to set policy, and the bishop didn't seem all too clear either. A participant pointed out the part of the statement which suggests that they are used to lead to policies, but that is a little murky as well, since later it says that not all church members need agree with a Social Statement. The comment was made, only half facetiously, that only clergy need to agree, since they'll be subject to the subsequent policy.

I tried to get clarification about the impetus behind the Social Statement, which I understood to be determining policy regarding same-sex unions and ordination of folks in same-sex relationships. I said it seemed to me that it was these two issues which led the 2001 CWA to request a Task Force. There was agreement on this, so I made the comment that it seemed like it would be a long way from the Statement to policy, since ordination isn't mentioned and blessings are only mentioned in passing. No real clarity emerged on this, though we were reminded that the Task Force will make policy recommendations next February. Later we heard the timeline on this, which is a bit curious, if correct:

--The recommendations are made in February,2009, and sent first to the Conference of Bishops and the ELCA Church Council. Those two groups will meet in April (or the latest of the two meetings is in April). Then the recommendations are released, which means that most substantive conversation will likely have to occur at Synod Assemblies. It also seems possible--and maybe likely--that this timeline will preclude most synods from developing resolutions around the recommendations, except in an ad hoc manner, if that is allowed.

The majority of folks in the room were in favor of change in current policy. A couple didn't say much, so it is hard to know where they stand. The bishop's assistant is definitely "stand-fast," as were two of the pastors. One of those pastors expressed the common concern that this is a church-dividing issue which we are not ready to tackle. The other is a mission pastor in our synod. His concerns are couched in the language of "evangelism," which he is always quick to remind us is the "E" in "ELCA."

His position is one we must know and combat, I think. His credential--to use organizer language--is that his is the "fastest growing church in our synod." This was actually the first thing he said at the meeting. It seems to give him the sense that his words deserve extra weight. His church presents its mission as reaching out to the unchurched. His definition of "unchurched" seems to include mainly very conservative folks. He also mentioned wife-beaters, twice. He claims to be moving them all more to the center, which he may well be doing.

Here are some of the things The Mission Pastor had to say:

--The Statement is "wishy-washy" about sin. Lutheran theology teaches that we are all sinners (hum along if you know this one). The Statement seems to tell lesbian and gay people that they are not sinners, and we (Lutherans) don't teach that. That sort of teaching "provides ammunition for 'The Enemy,' however you define 'The Enemy.'" (This is verbatim; I wrote it down.) He went on to talk about how we (Lutherans) lift up all sorts of examples of sin, and don't rank them. For instance, we would call it sin for a pastor to drive a giant, gas-guzzling SUV.

I pointed out that we don't legislate against pastors who drive giant, gas-guzzling SUV's, so it would seem that we are in the business of ranking sin. He conceded that point, and I jumped out of my seat and ran around the room pumping my fist. Just kidding. Well, he did concede the point.

TMP used the language of evangelism over and over. We've heard his point before, and it will be compelling for CWA (Churchwide Assembly 2009) voters, and the synod assembly voters sending memorials (recommendations to the CWA). Here is the argument: The church will not be able to reach out to "the unchurched" if it adopts a policy which those people will consider "out of step" with society.

TMP didn't speak much to the theology of the document or to the biblical underpinnings, except for the sin stuff, and the acknowledgement that he knew that he was "being Pauline" on this subject. He noted that Paul, in trying to grow the church, "was willing to tell women that they should shut up in church," because that teaching would appeal to the people Paul was trying to reach.

This was a new argument for me--gay people are expendable because that will appeal to "the unchurched," just as women's voices should be silenced if it appeals to men.

Go ahead, shudder. I couldn't last night, but you're not sitting in that chapel.

TMP said several other things. The other one you might enjoy (and by "enjoy" I mean "lose your lunch") was prompted by a young woman (27), who spoke up for those who will also be lost to the church, if change doesn't happen. TMP acknowledged that younger people have a different attitude toward same-gender relationships, and that if he went to the youth in his congregation and told them we have to love and respect those whose sexual orientation is different from ours, they would all "go down to the local treatment center and start working with people who are drinking and using drugs because they're so torn up by their sexual orientation."

Yes.

I swear.

Didn't need to write that one down--it's burned into my brain.

Some of the more neutral conversation included:

--Lifting up the sections on children and youth as well-written, specific, and providing clear teaching. One participant asked if slavery was mentioned, and we noted teaching on sexual exploitation which would seem to include slavery.
--Questions about the foundational language of trust, which permeates the document. Our TF rep said he was actually surprised by the language, since he didn't recall it being a fundamental idea in their earlier conversations. The group seemed to feel that the language was appropriate.
--The explication of Lutheran theology, while long, was generally considered quite good and helpful.

Those favoring change made some of these comments/arguments:

--There is a false dichotomy at work in the church, and underpinning the beginning of our conversation last night. It says we are choosing between doing nothing and changing. The reality is that we're doing something now: we're refusing to ordain gay and lesbian persons in relationships and to stand up for gay marriage. This something is causing a lot of people pain.

--There is a real anti-gay bias evident in the document.

--The privileging of heterosexual marriage is insulting and unfair. The sections on "Marriage" and "Same-Gender Committed Relationships" (predictably) received the most scrutiny. There was anger over the sentence beginning at 1127 which describes "those who regard same-gender sexual relationships as sinful" without comment (and therefore with tacit allowance or even approval). The same holds true for the statement starting at 1142 which allows that "In their pastoral response [to those in same-gender relationships,] some pastors and congregations will advocate repentance and celibacy."
-->Is our church really willing to say that it is okay for pastors and congregations to regard g/l relationships as "sinful" and to "advocate repentance and celibacy."

--LGBT people are fast losing patience with the language of "welcome," when it is accompanied by teachings which are equivocal and even cruel. This one was mine. It was the big thing that I wished to get across, and I hope I did. I said that as a pastor I could no longer hear the word of welcome coming from the ELCA, and that it was becoming increasingly difficult to ask my congregation to hear such a word of welcome from a church which calls our relationships less worthy.

--Of course there was real pain around the "definition of marriage" section, 1151-1155. A number of people expressed passionate disappointment with the language of this part of the document. One woman pointed at me and said she was really hurt that her church would teach her that her marriage is more valuable than mine. She then shared that she doesn't believe this to be the case.

--Side note: the woman above has a lesbian sister. We continue to see that change is rooted in relationship. We've got to get LGBT people and allies out to our churches, somehow.

I think that is most of what I found striking last night. Our bishop, who has been on a long journey of acceptance, said directly to TMP that he heard his concerns about change and its effect on our outreach, but that he had also just read Dr. King's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" again, and believed Dr. King was right in calling white pastors out for saying "now is not the time." I don't think our bishop will be out front on this. He is very clear that the semi-local-option adopted at last year's CWA (which could allow ordination of gay pastors) requires "a planetary alignment" and won't apply in his synod (I think this part was for me :) ). I did appreciate his prophetic voice at the end, when he offered those comments. I always appreciate his struggle to be faithful and pastoral to the many folks of different opinion who people the ELCA churches of Missouri and Kansas.

So that was the night. I took along one member of our congregation, who said a couple of the best things said all night. So once again, I'm disappointed in my denomination, proud of our congregation, and hopeful that we will be the change we seek.

1 comment:

john said...

Donna... Donna of PLTS... Donna...

John Stevens here. Been thinking of Guatemala.

Drop my a line at john@giftofgraceDOTnet