Sunday, August 23, 2009

Lutherans' mighty focus

I write a lot about religion in the political sphere, but I seldom say much about religion generally. It’s safe to say that it’s not one of my areas of interest (I studied political science and history in university, not theology).

Even so, every once in awhile something happens that I have to comment on, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA)* gave me such a reason when they voted to allow gay and lesbian pastors who are in a relationship to be included in the roster of pastors eligible for appointment to a church. They will also now allow, but not require, pastors to bless same-sex unions.

A little background: I was born, baptised and confirmed as a Lutheran. My father and his father were Lutheran ministers, so I quite literally grew up in the church. I never had a conflict between the Lutheran creed and my sexuality until I was already a gay political activist.

In the mid-1980s, I belonged to a gay Lutheran Group called Lutherans Concerned (most such religious groups had really dorky names). I remember at one of their get-togethers I met the Bishop (formerly called president) of the Illinois Synod (of the ELCA). At the same time, I was attending a church that was part of the Reconciled in Christ program (in which, basically, a church declares it’s embracing GLBT people as full and equal members).

About this time, conservatives in the denomination began moving against gay people, just as we were pushing for equality. The result, in typical Lutheran fashion, was that leaders agreed to “study” the situation. The rhetoric wasn’t encouraging, especially as the ELCA affirmed that only celibate gay people could serve as pastors.

As the years went on, I realised that religion no longer mattered to me and, later still, I started calling myself an agnostic, which by that time had become pretty obvious, anyway. Still, I also never renounced my heritage. Here in New Zealand, the Lutheran church is a branch of the Australian Church, and it’s quite conservative. To me, it reads like it’s “Missouri Synod Lite” (a Lutheran joke; we call it “Misery Synod”).

And so now, at last—some 25 years later—the church has finally moved in an appropriate way, more or less. Its document on sexuality basically recognises that there are varying beliefs among Lutherans and tries to accommodate them. Permitting gay pastors to be in committed relationships is the only rational position they could take. Lutheran conservatives, like those in other mainstream protestant denominations, feel that nothing less than complete rejection is acceptable. They’re likely to cause problems in the future.

But all of that is a battle for Lutherans to fight. I stopped fighting, or even noticing, really, some 20 years ago. Still, no one wants to be locked out of their family home, even when they stopped living there a long time before. But what the hell took Lutherans so long? To them it may have been of serious import, demanding long deliberations. To some of us, however, it was our lives. They must do better.

* The word “evangelical” in the church’s name doesn’t mean the same thing as it does to conservatives. Apparently, Luther wanted his church called the “Evangelical” church, and that’s why it’s called that now. Lutherans are NOT necessarily conservative!


Roger Owen Green said...

But as you allude, it WILL cause a schism in the church. Of course, Lutherans, like Presbyterians, are VERY deliberate, very deliberative, so the issue may kick around another couple years before any mass exodus.

Unknown said...

As another person raised Lutheran, I was quite glad they took there time and informed many congregations. At no point do the REQUIRE a congregation to do anything, they ALLOW one to do something. I like that. I also like that they had 95 pastors come out to everyone before the vote.

I think i am pretty atheist if not my faith is totally in science but the music of church still gets to my heart a bit.

jasonbradyut said...

This is just appalling. If Luther, the late German Christian protester, would still be here…where the denomination “Lutherans” derived from, he would be stunned and completely disappointed in this horrible abomination to the Word of God and the Gospel. I totally am against this election. When God created “man” he created Adam and Eve, NOT Adam and STEVE!!! Hello people. This is a direct form of disobedience to God. And this is happening in a Church, a denomination that professes to know the Word of God???? Please, God will have to deal with you guys…and it won’t be pretty.

Arthur Schenck said...

Roger: Lutherans love splits and schisms almost as much as deliberating for decades about issues. The current ELCA was a merger of the LCA and ALC, but conservative congregations split off to form the AELC (don't know if that still exists). Ideologically, they were somewhere between the ELCA and the Misery—OOPS!—Missouri Synod.

So, it wouldn't surprise me at all if rightwing congregations decide to split off.

Bjorn: I completely understand why they made it optional, and I don't have a major problem with that. However, it seems to me be rather timid. After all, I'm not aware of congregations being able to refuse to marry an interracial couple, so to me this looks like a way to provide cover for congregations' bigotry. Still, this was all that was possible, even after 25 years of "study", and even that was obviously too much for the rightwing.