Since I was ordained in July of 2003 I have talked about sex more than I expected. In 2001 our voting members at the ELCA Churchwide Assembly adopted two resolutions:
- to study homosexuality with reference to two issues: the blessing of same-sex unions and the ordination, consecration and commissioning of people in committed same-sex unions and…
- to develop a social statement on sexuality.
Our churchwide study and discernment continued for eight years. A Task Force was formed who took their responsibility very seriously and devoted hundreds if not thousands of hours to their task in an effort to fairly represent the perspectives of a five million member Church.
It was during my second year of ministry in Cashton that I used a helpful six-session resource from the Task Force called “Journey Together Faithfully.” As one who typically avoids conflict, I was extremely nervous about facilitating these sessions. They touched at the heart of how our lives together are formed and shaped. Where do we get our identity? How does the Bible interpret our experience? How does our experience help us interpret the Bible? What place does tradition hold as we discern church policy and practice? Why? These questions sound innocent enough—as though they are simply heady questions that can remain safely on paper. But we were talking through these questions as they pertain to a very HOT button topic: homosexuality.
What I discovered as a Pastor was profound. I learned that the Church really is full of grace and love. Our group of 25 or so was not at all unanimous in our discernment of Scripture or what part experience and tradition play as they inform our behavior. But… we were unanimous in our agreement that our fellowship as brothers and sisters rested in something much more powerful than any hot button issue. Actually, our fellowship rests is someONE much more powerful: Jesus Christ.
Throughout these years of discernment for the church, I have read and re-read Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together. In his classic little book about what the Christian community is for (and what it’s not for), Bonhoeffer says that “innumerable times a whole Christian community has broken down because it had sprung from a wish dream.” He says that most Christians have in their minds and hearts their own idea of what Christian life together should look like. But, “God’s grace speedily shatters such dreams.” Inevitably, he says, Christians become “overwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves. By sheer grace, God will not permit us to live even for a brief period in a dream world.” His point is that true Christian community is not founded on our dreams for it. The promise of Christian community is not that we all like each other all the time or agree with each other about how we shall behave. The promise is that where two or more are gathered, there shall be Christ. There shall be forgiveness, communion and mutual encouragement to live in the Word. “He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter…” To all that, I must say, Amen!
Ten years ago, the whole ELCA discerned responses to those questions in order to create a social statement on sexuality, not just homosexuality but all of sexuality. The product, “Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust” was, in my opinion, one of the most thoughtful discussions of the place of God’s gift of sexuality ever written. Ever. It names the complexities of human sexuality, including how it has the power to form deep and lasting bonds, both for good through joy and pleasure and for bad through pain and exploitation. Most of all, though, the statement connects healthy sexuality of any kind to trust. “Sexual relationships may be among our most profoundly intimate, crucial and self-giving expressions of trust.” In few other experiences are humans more vulnerable. Marriage has always been the ‘shelter’ and ‘context’ for this level of trust and intimacy to be expressed. So, the statement affirmed the long-held belief that the only appropriate context for sexual activity is within marriage.
So, what might that mean for homosexuals who—at the time—could not get married? The statement included various perspectives on that question in four particular ways:
- Same gender sexual behavior is sinful. Homosexuals should repent from that behavior and remain celibate. Pastors and churches should support their efforts.
- Homosexuality reflects a broken world and although they may not need to ‘repent’, the Church should not publicly recognize or bless even lifelong, monogamous, homosexual relationships as a ‘marriage’.
- Scripture does not address the context of sexual orientation and lifelong loving and committed relationships that we experience today. These relationships should be held to high standards and public accountability—but they should not be considered a ‘marriage’.
- Same gender relationships lived out with a lifelong, monogamous commitment should be treated like a ‘marriage’.
The ELCA admitted we lack consensus but that room would be allowed for individual congregations to choose how to respond to questions of church behavior pertaining to homosexuality. Should we call an LGBT Pastor? Should we allow our Pastor to perform LGBT unions/weddings? Should we welcome LGBTs into our community? Our ELCA is not in the habit of issuing edicts that all must follow. Instead, our social statement said, “as we live with disagreement, the people in this church will continue to accompany one another in study, prayer, discernment, pastoral care and mutual respect.”
Of course, even allowing the possibility of an individual congregation within our ELCA to answer ‘yes’ to those first two questions above caused quite a stir. Congregations left their denomination. Families left their congregation. Here at First Lutheran, we lost two families to my knowledge in the fall of 2009 when the social statement passed by exactly a 2/3 vote at the churchwide assembly that year.
Since then, First hasn’t thought much about sexuality. That changed last year as I saw the writing on the wall amidst our state’s viewpoint on the legality of same-sex marriage. My colleagues in Minnesota were already responding to requests for same-gender weddings. And rather than saying, “we haven’t thought about that yet” to any request that may come our way, I wanted our leadership to be proactive. So, in June of 2014, I broached the topic in our Vision & Leadership meeting. Off and on for months—as time allowed at each meeting—we prayerfully considered the questions in preparation for an eventual wedding request. By October, a US District Court legalized same gender weddings in Wisconsin, and by November 1 had our first request. Since then, First has created a Vision and Leadership Team sub-committee that has consulted with a number of Minnesota congregations to decide what process will best serve us in our discernment with the goal of making a policy decision as to whether or not First will allow their Pastors to wed same-gender couples. We decided to conduct a simple survey to ‘take the temperature’ of the congregation. That was followed with a forum dedicated to discussing the process of discernment. On March 8 two senior pastors from Rochester churches shared their experiences, and groups of our own members started talking through their questions and concerns. On April 19, Bishop S. John Roth will lead a study on the theology behind the different Scripture verses typically named throughout this discussion. To prepare for his time with us and to continue the momentum we have from our March 8 event, I will offer two sessions on April 7 and 14 (Tuesdays at 10AM or 6:30 PM) that will introduce these Scripture verses and consider the place of experience and tradition with biblical interpretation.
As your Pastor, my goals are to 1) provide a pastoral presence to ALL. I deeply believe this issue is not at the heart of our fellowship and that the opportunity here is to learn how to live together—thrive even—despite our disagreements. 2) get as many people involved in these learning/discussion opportunities as possible. I believe every perspective is a gift from God. Staying out of the conversation because you would rather avoid conflict or because you think your opinion is “already set and they’re not going to persuade me out of it” won’t help anyone.
The question of whether First will allow same-gender weddings presents us with a crisis. In my experience, crisis both reveals character and shapes it. This process can either grow us closer together into a better understanding of what Christian community is meant to be like, or it could expose us as a segmented, consumerized conglomeration of individual units who happen to worship at the same building. In the midst of this genuine crisis, I call upon you to participate in the conversation. Attend the sessions and the forum. If you are unable, call or write your Vision & Leadership Team. Share your thoughts. Ask me questions. The more we do this work together, the more easily we will be reminded that Christ is among us as we gather.
Thank you for reading such a long letter. And pray that our Church may grow stronger through this chapter of our life together.