The ELCA communications office sent out a story on Thursday highlighting results from a survey of Mainline Protestant clergy on gay and lesbian issues and the church (conducted by a firm called Public Religion Research). There were some interesting results, both generally and about ELCA clergy.

The survey found that 54% of ELCA clergy favor the ordination of gay and lesbian persons without any special requirements placed upon them. Only 14% oppose the eligibility of gay and lesbian persons in any circumstance, and 32% favor their eligibility if they remain celibate (which is the status quo in the ELCA). Civil marriage for same-sex couples gets only 37% support from ELCA pastors, but a significant majority support some form of legal recognition for same-sex couples (with another 44% supporting civil unions). Opposition to any form of legal recognition comes to 19%. (Of the 7 denominations included in the survey, only Episcopal and UCC clergy have a lower percentage opposing any legal recognition.) Further, when accompanied by assurances that churches would not be required to perform same-sex weddings, support for same sex marriage amongst ELCA clergy went up nearly 20 points to 56%. On other questions of legal rights, super-majorities of ELCA clergy support items employment nondiscrimination laws, hate crimes legislation, and adoption rights.

ELCA Churchwide Assembly

What might this mean for next week’s Churchwide Assembly in Minneapolis? The value of this report for predicting outcomes of votes on the human sexuality proposals is extremely limited, of course, but there might be some analysis to be taken from it nevertheless. What the survey does suggest is that changes in ordination policy are indeed a possible outcome of next week’s assembly, although that is far from certain. It also suggests that votes on the ministry proposals are likely to be close, especially if it gets to the final proposal on ordination.

Additionally, the report seems to give hard data to my suspicion about the strategy behind requests that the proposals be required to pass by a 2/3 majority instead of a simple majority of voting members. I’ve long suspected that the call for such super-majorities has been largely motivated, at least for some, as a strategy to prevent any changes in policy toward recognition or blessing of same-sex relationships or of the rostering of individuals in such a relationship. The data for ELCA clergy suggests that there may be some concern that support is moving close to or beyond a simple majority and that the primary hope of preventing changes comes in moving the goal posts to require a higher level of approval than would normally be the case.

Four Variables

I see four main variables affecting how survey results from ELCA pastors might relate to Churchwide Assembly results late next week.

1) clergy voting members vs. clergy as a whole

First is the question of how the clergy voting members of the assembly may by reflective of ELCA clergy as a whole, and thus how closely they might match the survey data. Given a majority of just 4% in the survey toward support of ordaining partnered gay and lesbian pastors, margin of error in the survey data may become quite visible. A bigger factor may be just the way that selecting 400 some clergy from amongst the church’s pastors, including the self-selection of those willing to serve as a voting member, can influence the make-up of voting members. On the other hand, there have been claims through the years (mostly by more conservative factions in the ELCA) that the voting members of the Churchwide Assembly tend to be more liberal than the ELCA as a whole. I’m skeptical of this point, as it seems as much an excuse or a rhetorical point than a solid observation. Yet, if this is indeed the case, how big of a factor this might be remains unclear.

2) the role of other concerns about the church

A second variable may be the degree to which there may or may not be differences between someone’s position on questions of ordination and blessings and how they might choose to vote at an assembly. In other words, how might other factors like concerns about church unity potentially change outcomes about a specific proposal? It is entirely possible that some of the clergy who support allowing gay and lesbian pastors to serve openly in the church would still not vote to change the policy at this time. This might hinge a great deal on the mood at the assembly next week as much as anything. It’s a point worth watching during the deliberations on the human sexuality social statement as well as other matters prior to the ministry recommendations being taken up.

3) differences between clergy and lay voting members

What are the differences between the clergy and lay voting members on these issues? This is an important question because clergy are limited to not more than 40% of the voting members of the assembly. I’ve seen little hard evidence specifically applicable to this topic in the ELCA that might help answer the question. The clues that most readily come to mind are somewhat conflicting.

A number of surveys over the years have suggested that ELCA clergy are politically and theologically more liberal than the lay members of the ELCA as a whole. For example, there is a significantly greater percentage of clergy who identify as Democrats than the ELCA’s lay membership. How much of a role might his play in the topic of human sexuality, though? Yet, the report notes that the views of Mainline clergy overall are pretty much in line with the views of lay members of Mainline churches on gay and lesbian issues. They note that 65% of Mainline clergy support either same-sex marriage or civil unions, which compares with 70% support amongst Mainline Protestants overall (and with 57% of the general population of the United States). If this is indeed the case, we might not see any signifiant difference between the pastors and the lay voting members at the assembly.

Because of the 60-40 lay-clergy split amongst the voting members of the Churchwide Assembly, what differences in support would be significant. Assuming for the moment (despite the questions of the two variables above) that the survey accurately predicts clergy support for ordination policy changes at the Churchwide Assembly, it turns out that 47.5% of lay voting members would need to support allowing those in same-sex relationships to serve as pastors to achieve a majority.  If a rule is adopted requiring a 2/3 super-majority, a full 75% of lay voting members would need to support a change in order for the change to pass, putting it almost certainly out of reach at this time.

4) sequence of proposals

The proposals around ministry standards for gay and lesbian individuals follow a stepped process, moving from a more general question about explicitly allowing congregations to recognition and support same-sex relationships on to ordination policy more specifically. The plan is for each of the four steps to be taken in turn, and consideration of a subsequent step being dependent upon approval of its predecessor. Might this ordered and sequential process affect the outcome?

The report on the Mainline clergy survey does not give any specific data on support for blessings by denomination, although they do say that it “largely parallel[s]” support for same-sex marriage. As noted above, support for same-sex marriage is found in only a bit more than 1/3 of ELCA clergy, except when the religious liberty assurance is added into the question. This could suggest that the proposals will die on the first resolution despite support for ordination policy changes that could be near majority levels. The degree to which an assurance that no congregation in the ELCA will be required to recognize and support same-sex relationships, or broader support for marriage or civil unions may be part of the mix is quite unclear without the specific blessing data. Will the proposal get greater support because it is phrased in terms of allowing congregations rather than more general language about “this church” doing such things, just as there is greater support for civil same-sex marriage amongst clergy when similar assurances are included? That there is greater support for ordination than same-sex marriage amongst Lutheran clergy might also allow for the possibility that some who do not support marriage equality or blessings may still vote for the relationship recognition step in order to get to the ordination policy changes which they support. These remain open questions that may become clearer later next week.

Hopes and Prayers

Next week’s ELCA Churchwide Assembly will, no doubt, be marked with some tension. My sense, from reports of synod assemblies and more general observations from following church news, is that the topic of ministry standards with gay and lesbian persons is as closely drawn as ever. Never before has the possibility of a change in policy been as great as it is this year, but neither a change nor maintenance of the status quo are assured outcomes. I do have my hopes and prayers for a specific outcome on these issues, but, above all, it is my hope and prayer that this topic, and the whole business of the assembly, may be engaged respectfully and with good humor, all while remembering we are all God’s beloved Children seeking to live faithfully in our calling. May we all keep in mind our unity is in Christ, not uniformity of opinion. “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, on baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.” (Ephesians 4:4-6)