Today, the Churchwide Assembly of the ELCA made monumental decisions for the future of the church body. With a series of four resolutions, the Assembly voted to commit the church, first, “to bear one another’s burdens, love the neighbor, and respect the bound consciences of all” (which passed 771-230). This was followed by a resolution explicitly allowing congregations to “recognize, support, and hold publicly accountable” same-sex couples. In other words, they voted 619-402 to allow congregations and pastors in the ELCA to bless same-sex unions. This was followed by consideration of a resolution that would commit the ELCA to allowing gay and lesbian individuals in same-sex relationships to serve as pastors and rostered lay ministers in the ELCA. (For anyone not familiar with the status quo, now gay and lesbian individuals must remain celibate and indicate willingness to remain celibate in order to serve. Although there are and have been pastors who have served quietly, sometimes even with the knowledge of their bishop, and contrary to the policy, they do so at risk of being removed from the the church’s clergy, however.) This resolution passed 559-451, or with the approval of approximately 55% of the voting members of the assembly. This was followed by one further resolution that directed the implementation of the policy just decided. The implementing resolution passed 667-307.
While signs were in place the indicated that this year may be the time, after many years of church studies, discussions, and fights over the church’s policy toward gay and lesbian persons, I had scarcely allowed myself to hope that this would be the decision made this week. I am pleased with the outcome. I believe grace and justice has been served by the decision. I believe it moves us toward living up to our theological tradition on this issue, and living into the biblical promise in Christ. It’s been, in my opinion, long overdue. It brings joy.
And yet, it is not and cannot be pure joy for those of us who hoped for this day to come. The assembly hall was a sober place this afternoon. The weight and importance of the decisions made this day clearly was felt by the voting members. There are many in the ELCA who are and will be profoundly disappointed and upset by this decision. Not a few of them are also friends. It means we all need to very intentionally live in the unity we have in Christ, even despite our differences in opinion and conscience on these issues. In many ways, the most important resolution passed today was the resolution committing our church to bearing one another’s burdens and respecting bound consciousness. But now is not the time for dispair for any, even if it is also legitimately a time of morning for some. Christ is steadfast and true. His promises are for all of us. And we are all called together to be one, and we, indeed, are one in Christ, even if it doesn’t feel that way at any given time.
After the fourth resolution passed, Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson took a few minutes to speak to the assembly as the church’s pastor. I believe he spoke well to the church and to the assembly in response to today’s decisions. He said:
I want more time to think about words from one you have called to serve as pastor of this church.
I have been standing here thinking about my 23 years as a parish pastor and how differently I would go into a context if I was gathering with a family or a group of people that had just experienced loss, or perhaps were wondering if they still belonged, or in fact felt deeply that ones to whom they belong had been severed from them. That would be a very different pastoral conversation. And I would probably turn to words such as Romans 8.
“Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus who died, yes, who was raised, who was at the right hand of God, who intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? … I’m convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.”
But then I thought, what if I were going into a family or a group, a community that had always wondered if they belonged and suddenly had now received a clear affirmation that they belonged? All of the wondering about the dividing walls, the feelings of separation seemed to have dropped away. That would be a very different conversation. I would probably read to them out of Ephesians.
“But now in Christ Jesus, you who were once far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one. He has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us…. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place of God.”
But then I thought, what if those two groups were together, but also in their midst were those who had not experienced loss or the feeling of the dividing wall of separation coming down, but were wondering and worried if all that had occurred might sever the unity that is ours in Christ and might wonder if their actions might have contributed to reconciliation or separation? If all those people were together in a room, I would read from Colossians.
“As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you must also forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts, sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”
That passage gives invitation and expectation that those deeply disappointed today will have in this church the expectation and the freedom to continue to admonish and to teach. And so, too, those that have experienced reconciliation today, you are called to humility. You are called to clothe yourselves with love. But we’re all called to let the peace of Christ rule in our hearts, remembering again and again that we are called in the one body.
I will invite you tomorrow afternoon into important, thoughtful, prayerful conversations about what all of this means for our life together. But what is absolutely important for me is that that’s a conversation we have together.
I ended my oral report with these words: “We meet one another finally, not in our agreements or our disagreements, but at the foot of the cross. Where God is faithful, where Christ is present with us, and where, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we are one in Christ.”
Let us pray.
O God, gracious and holy, mysterious and merciful, we meet this day at the foot of the cross and there we kneel in gratitude and awe that you have loved us so much that you would give the life of your Son so that we might have life in his name. Send your Spirit this night, the Spirit of the risen Christ that has been breathed into us. May it calm us. May your Spirit unite us. May it continue to gather us. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Video of his remarks can be viewed at the ELCA Churchwide Assembly website.
Thank you to Pastor John Dornheim for posting a transcript of Bishop Hanson’s comments.