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Sunday, May 31, 2009

SD Synod Vote on Sexuality Statement: More than Fairness

My wife Erin returned home from the South Dakota ELCA Synod Assembly and gave me a little first-hand perspective on yesterday's vote to reject the proposed statement on human sexuality and stick with existing position papers. She said the debate was civil and not terribly tense. She thought the pastor from Sioux Falls didn't really need to include the discussion of rectal and vaginal tissues to make his point (eeww!). But she was able to vote to reject the proposed human sexuality statement. Another Madison delegate voted for it, and the two of them were able to sit down for lunch and have a perfectly neighborly discussion about their disagreement over barbecues (you don't get much more Lutheran than that).

Now homosexuality is only a small part of the proposed statement, "Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust." (And remember, the statement isn't dead: the South Dakota Synod has simply stated its position, which it will take to full debate at the churchwide ELCA assembly in Minneapolis in August.) The overall focus is on much broader issues of trust and respect in all human relations. But the main conflict point getting media attention is that yesterday's vote affirmed the ELCA's current position that practicing homosexuals should not serve as clergy (see that Sioux Falls paper and KELO).

Madville Times readers from both sides of the aisle will likely find it interesting that Erin, whose progressive Lutheranism has played a significant role in my conversion from Republican to Democrat, essentially voted against equality for homosexuals. What the heck is she doing voting like Bob Ellis would (if he were Lutheran)?

I won't do Erin's argument nearly as much justice as she can. After all, she's the Lutheran in the family. But I want to capture one slice of it.

Erin heard delegates at the assembly argue for the sexuality statement by saying it was about fairness for homosexuals. One young delegate said it was unfair to limit homosexuals' ability to answer the call to serve as ministers. Erin and I both have a hard time looking a call like that for social justice in the eye and saying no. Socially and politically, we see no evidence that homosexuals are any less qualified than heterosexuals to carry out the functions of any job—pastor, soldier, journalist, teacher, garbage man, whatever. Neither does the ELCA: currently homosexuals can serve as ELCA pastors but are "expected to abstain from homosexual sexual relationships." (Feel free to debate the questionable distinction between being and doing.) One could argue that's not much different from the ELCA's expectation that unmarried heterosexual ministers remain celibate.

However fair it might be politically to extend the call to ministry to practicing homosexuals, Erin finds the proposed sexuality statement uses bad theology to justify that position. It's not written explicitly in the proposed statement; to recognize the bad theology, you have to read and think carefully. By Erin's careful reading and thinking, the proposed statement essentially declares that God has issued a new calling, a new Word in addition to the Old and New Testament.

I suggested making campaign buttons reading, "ELCA: We're not Mormons!" Erin felt that was unnecessary. But that line captures, I think, Erin's fundamental opposition to the proposed sexuality statement: no matter how good the goals, you don't go adding to Scripture. She's not a literalist: she's all for studying and interpreting the Bible in its fullest linguistic, literary, historical, and cultural context. But you still have to ground your theological positions (including sexuality statements) on what you get from Scripture as is.

As I said, it's not easy to explain—"Such is the burden of confessional Lutherans," says Erin. Yesterday's vote is complicated. I don't like the practical outcome of the decision, but I can tolerate it. Erin's vote comes not from irrational fear, intolerance, or malice. It comes from well-reasoned theology. It seeks no political revolution or support from the state. It only protects the philosophical integrity of a religious organization. I can live with that reasoning... not to mention with the person who made it.

Now if only the rest of society could coexist as well as the folks in my household.


  1. I also studied this statement with a group at my church, and took part in discussions about it with the congregation at large, with three Lutheran pastors who serve our church, and with synod officials. I have to say that I'm more than a little surprised by Erin's conclusions. Neither I nor anyone else in the group I was part of had even remotely similar concerns - and none of us 100% agreed with the statement. I'd be interested to hear more about what brought her to the decision to reject the statement.

    I felt that it did some really basic, important things - acknowledging that there is no consensus on a lot of these issues, and, most importantly, explicitly acknowledging that LGBT people are a part of the world that God has created and our church specifically. (If Erin is unable to locate a Scriptural basis for these findings, I would suggest that she's probably not looking too closely.) The recommendations about rostering ministers come naturally from these findings, it seems. If anything, I thought the statement was probably a little too middle-of-the-road.

    I think, also, that it would be easy for you and Erin to "tolerate" the rejection of this statement, or to quibble about its Scriptural soundness (again, not an issue I've ever heard discussed in any of a zillion discussions in which I've taken part about this statement - and we all read this statement carefully and familiarity with Lutheran doctrines, the Bible, etc, either though a lifetime of involvement in Lutheran churches or from education in seminary). For the people I personally know who are barred from being rostered Lutheran pastors, and for the congregations who want to call them as ministers, it's not so easy. The fact that this negatively effects actual people is lost in your discussion, and, it seems, in Erin's vote.

  2. Incidentally, while I'm thinking about this, a couple of other things came to mind.

    You say "One could argue (the current ELCA policy is) not much different from the ELCA's expectation that unmarried heterosexual ministers remain celibate."

    When, in actuality, it's radically different, since the ELCA has a rite through which heterosexual couples marry (and, for the narrow purposes of discussing pastors, gives pastors the ability to have monogamous sex within the bonds of marriage), while the ELCA has no similar rite for same-sex couples. Heterosexual pastors can choose to marry or not; homosexuals who are called to be pastors have no option.

    This brings up another point. A lot of congregations are tired of the quibbling and some are going ahead with calling non-celibate gay pastors, while a lot more will bless same-sex unions, regardless of the approval or disapproval of the ELCA.

    The synod assemblies and the larger church are way behind the needs of their membership on this stuff. I saw the statement as a somewhat halfhearted attempt to get up to speed, so to speak.

  3. Ease up on the throttle, Anna. Erin is just as aware of the real people this decision affects as you are. She did not make this decision lightly or joyfully. She struggled with the logic and emotion surrounding the issue and continues to do so.

    Here's the hard thing about this, Anna: we don't get to assume that everyone who disagrees with us simply isn't as thoughtful or well-read as we are. You can come look at Erin's theological library yourself; this biased source will simply point out that Erin has read and thought about this issue and sought the counsel of plenty of wise, trusted people, just as you have. She continues to do so. (And let's not forget that year at a theological school that is most definitely not "Liberty" University).

    By the way, Erin does not take the Ahmadinejad position that LGBT people are not a part of the world God has created and our church specifically. The church should reach out to all humanity... but that outreach must be based on solid theology.

    The challenge for you and for me is to recognize that two conscientious, justice-minded people like you and Erin can reason out a challenging, controversial issue like this and come to opposing conclusions.

  4. You certainly seemed to suggest that those of us who came to a different conclusion weren't "reading and thinking" very carefully, that we missed something within the document that only a trained eye could see.

    The part of my comment(s) that you seem to take issue with aren't actually about Erin or anyone else who came to a decision one way or another on the statement. They came from your implication that those of us who feel differently came to our position through ignorance of the Scriptural grounding of the document, which couldn't be further from the truth.

  5. As I said, it's a challenge for both of us.

  6. [Dang it! Commenters, you still have to leave your name.]

    But in response to a question from an Anon, I don't think a list of Yeas and Nays by name is available. The delegates vote by holding up cards, red or green, and someone goes around and counts. I don't think they record names while counting. However, you could go to the source and find out: contact the SD Synod office at Augustana College.


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