Setting Aside Good Order in the ELCA?

Life in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) these days is anything put peaceful and easy. Since the Churchwide Assembly in August passed a social statement on human sexuality (here, PDF) and resolutions to allow gay and lesbian individuals who are committed and monogamous same-sex relationships to serve as pastors of the church (here, PDF), those who have opposed those decisions have been vocal in their disappointment, anger and dissent. But the Northeastern Iowa Synod has recently upped the ante with a pair of resolutions “repudiating” those assembly decisions.

Response to the Assembly

Since the Assembly, unhappy traditionalists have made a fair amount of noise. Lutheran CORE had a meeting to discuss what to do. After initially deciding to wait a year before making a decision, it’s leadership has subsequently decided to move ahead and set up a new church body. To date, fewer than 100 congregations (less than 1% of the ELCA’s parishes) have held votes on leaving the ELCA, with several of those failing to get the required threshold to leave. More significant noise has been made about redirecting mission support dollars away from the ELCA (or at least it’s general fund). Church offices have not been clear about how much an impact there actually has been on receipts, so it is somewhat difficult to know if the recent, and significant, budget reductions for the ELCA are on the basis of actual giving declines or a prudent move anticipating declines. The economic situation of the United States certainly doesn’t help this, either.

Amongst suggestions that conservative groups have made to those unhappy with the ELCA’s decisions on ministry policies have been the adoption of provisions in local congregation constitutions that prohibit partnered gay and lesbian clergy from being called as their pastor. This will no doubt make some of those who are not willing to leave the ELCA feel as though they’ve done something. But such provisions serve as little more than as a form of protest. In congregations that significantly opposed a partnered gay or lesbian pastor would never get past a call committee, if a synod office would even suggest such a candidate, which is itself very unlikely. And if the mind of the congregation changed enough that it wanted or was willing to call a pastor in such a relationship, the constitution or continuing resolutions are fairly easily changed, only needing some time.

Northeastern Iowa Synod

The synod council of the Northeastern Iowa Synod has moved further. They have passed two resolutions on the human sexuality and ministry policy decision from the ELCA (here and here, PDFs), repudiating those decisions. One resolution, claiming no argument from Scripture of the Lutheran Confessions was made the reject the traditional position on gay and lesbian relationships, has the synod council repudiating the human sexuality statement and the ministry recommendations and claiming that they are in violation of the ELCA’s confession of faith. Further, the resolution will ask the ELCA’s church council to likewise repudiate these Churchwide Assembly actions, refuse to implement them, and begin a process to overturn them at the next Assembly in 2011.

The second resolution claims a “bound conscience” for the synod on the basis of past synod assembly actions of gay and lesbian issues. The council declares that unchanged expectations for clergy “shall remain in effect in the Northeastern Iowa Synod.” Further, they propose a continuing resolution to the 2010 synod assembly that would continue the language the ELCA has had regarding clergy and sexual relationships since 199o as ongoing expectations for candidates for ministry and pastors in the synod.

Away from Good Order

One could look upon these actions as mostly protest against the Churchwide Assembly’s decisions. But these don’t simply voice an opinion. They urge action and set synod policy. This synod action directly challenges the established structures of the ELCA. As such, it moves the ELCA away from good order and a bit closer to ecclesiastical anarchy.

In the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, policies regarding clergy, ordination, candidacy for ordained (or rostered lay) ministry, discipline procedures, and so on are set by the church body as a whole. Individual synods and their bishops have an important and indispensable part in administration of these policies, but they are not policy makers.

Synods have always had some latitude in which pastors it would recommend for calls and which seminary graduates it will take on for their first calls. It is thus entirely possible that a bishop or synod to avoid partnered gay and lesbian pastors if they choose to do so. To this extent, the resolutions might simply be unfortunate but not any inherent violation of good order. But they do not stop there.

These resolutions claim a policy for the NE Iowa Synod in which pastors will still be held to the same expectations that have been in place since 1990. This is where things start to get sticky. Bishops do not have the power to simply remove a pastor from a call, short of seeking a pastor’s removal from the roster of ELCA clergy. The decision of the Churchwide Assembly means that gay and lesbian pastors in committed same-sex relationships will no longer be subject to removal from the roster for that specific reason alone. A synod and it’s bishop trying to enforce a policy not allowing such relationships will have a distinct difficulty doing so.

Although they could try to use the synod specified expectations, the disciplinary procedures fall under ELCA jurisdiction and under ELCA policies. A continuing resolution or bylaw in the synod’s constitution simply does not have force there. Synods do not set ministry policies of this nature. There would be no basis, under the relevant ELCA documents, to find a violation of clergy expectations that would warrant removal from the ELCA’s churchwide roster of clergy. The policy that the Northeastern Iowa Synod is purporting to create is one that simply cannot be enforced. And a bishop who might seek to find a way around the regular discipline process may soon find himself or herself in their own hot water for using neither the required due process nor adhering to the administrative policies of the church.

The synod resolutions also thumbs the synod’s nose at policies and proper lines of authority over candidacy process issues.  It calls upon the synod candidacy committee to continue to use the 1990 expectations for clergy (i.e. not to approve gay and lesbian candidates in same-sex relationships). The candidacy process is carried out with committees in each of the churches regional synods, but the process is supposed to follow a uniform procedure and set of policies. Candidates work through their home synod, but often are assigned to different areas when they graduate from seminary and are ready for their first call. The synod candidacy committees do not act on behalf of their own synod, but on behalf of the church at large. But here the Northeastern Iowa Synod would substitute it’s decisions for those of the proper authority, the ELCA as a church body. The disturbance of ELCA policy and governance mounts.

The impact of these resolutions may also not be limited to just one midwestern synod, for they may serve as precedent for disgruntled leadership in other synods. If several synods follow the lead of the Northeastern Iowa Synod, the ELCA will devolve into a situation of de facto multiple clergy rosters with synods essentially picking and choosing which virtual roster to use. This would lead not to good order for the whole of our church (which can certainly include individual congregations choosing not to call gay and lesbian pastors), but into an essential anarchy whereby churchwide policy has no real meaning and each synod gets to make up its own rules.

But that is not the height of the problems with these NE Iowa Synod resolutions. At first glance, the resolution that repudiates the ministry policy resolutions and the human sexuality social statement and further claims them to be violations of the ELCA’s statement of faith would seem to be less problematic from a structural standpoint. It might appear that the resolution is little more than dissenting speech. Certainly repudiation of these resolutions by a synod has no effect in actual governance of the church. There is no procedure by which synods may ratify or block such actions.

The problem, however, is that the synod is urging the ELCA’s church council to anarchy as well.  With it’s resolution, the synod council requests certain action of the ELCA. (This is what it means to “memorialize” the council, in ELCA parlance.) It asks the church council to refuse to implement the decisions. Yet, the Churchwide Assembly is the highest legislative authority in the ELCA. The church council was directed to make certain changes. For the council to follow the request of the synod in Iowa would be tantamount to committing mutiny. It would be nothing else than an improper undoing and rebellion against the established authority structures in the ELCA. Further, in terms of proper procedure, a challenge that these resolutions were violations of the constitutional statement of faith, and thus out of order, belonged at the Assembly itself in a point of order raised from the floor.

Some Repudiation Is in Order

Thankfully, the Church Council is almost certainly going to deny all of the requests from the Northeastern Iowa Synod. But more is needed. These resolutions, and others that may follow, are not simply raising a voice in protest. Protest is well and good, even to be expected from some synods. They have the right to voice their dissatisfaction and even anger. That is not, however, what these resolutions are.

Good order is necessary for our life together. But this rather fundamentally challenges the established order and governance structures of the ELCA. They are an attempt at synodical nullification of properly passed decisions of the Churchwide Assembly. Although claiming to be based out of a “bound conscience,” the resolutions actually do violence to the conscience of others, allowing no room for respect of the consciences of those who may disagree with their synod’s resolutions. (Of course, they also are repudiating the call to respect one another’s conscientiously held beliefs, even while claiming to act on the basis of that resolution’s very language—an irony that is, no doubt, intentional on the part of the resolution’s authors.) Because these resolutions move away from good order, even toward ecclesiastical anarchy, and offer a deep challenge to the ELCA’s governance, they ought to be repudiated far and wide.


1 Comments Add Yours ↓

  1. Jim Smith #

    The reality is that the NE Iowa Synod is not in violation of any ELCA policies…they are excercising the “bound conscience” clause of the CWA that allowed folks to dissent.

    Here is the true mess with all this: Eventually, the policies will be implemented, schism will cause 10-30 percent of the churches to leave or redirect, and the ELCA will be weakened.

    But by passing a resolution about “bound conscience”, without defining it (despite attempts from the floor, I was there) , and redefining it the way Luther used it, the ELCA has no one to blame but themselves.

    They would have been far better off saying either yes or no, rather than the passive-agressive manner in which it was done.