Thursday, February 19, 2009

Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust

First, some definitions.

Me: child of God, member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), seminary-educated professional church musician eligible for rostered leadership in all ways but one: I'm a lesbian who has been with my partner since 1997, who had a big church wedding in 2007. My best friend B is also a partnered lesbian, which is the one giant stumbling block in her journey toward ordination.

ELCA: Publicly proclaims this. Structured like this. Governed like this, with the next Churchwide Assembly taking place in my hometown next August.

At that Assembly, voting members will decide whether or not to adopt as ELCA policy a social statement entitled "Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust," which has been crafted over the last two years by a task force which was convened to study and articulate a proposed ELCA position on matters of human sexuality. The catalyst for this discussion is the disagreement on issues pertaining to homosexuality:
  • tolerance/recognition/blessing of committed same-gender relationships
  • ordination of homosexual persons in committed same-gender relationships
I suspect that service on that task force may be the most excruciating, thankless job in history. I honor and thank its members for their careful, respectful work.

Along with the draft of the Social Statement, they have proposed recommendations for action by the Churchwide Assembly which take place in four steps, each succeeding step considered only if the one before it has passed:

Step one asks the Churchwide Assembly whether, in principle, it is committed to finding ways to allow congregations and synods that choose to do so to recognize, support, and hold publicly accountable life-long, monogamous, same-gender relationships.

Step two asks the Churchwide Assembly whether, in principle, this church is committed to finding a way for people in such publicly accountable, life-long, monogamous, same-gender relationships to serve as rostered leaders of this church.

Step three asks this Church whether, in the future implementation of these commitments, it will make decisions so that all in this church bear the burdens of the other, and respect the bound consciences of all. This means that any solution that serves only the conscience-bound positions of one or another part of this church will not be acceptable.

Step four proposes how this Church can move toward change in a way that respects the bound consciences of all. It recognizes that such respect will lead to diversity of practice. However, the majority of the task force believes that the conscience-bound lack of consensus will be respected most faithfully by providing some structured flexibility in decision-making so that congregations and synods may choose whether or not to approve or call people in publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships to serve on ELCA rosters.

My bishop notes that

In this way, the assembly will decide whether to create "space" for congregations and synods to publicly recognize and hold accountable the relationship of same-gendered couples (step one), and (step two) whether our Church ought to find ways to allow the rostered ministry of such persons.

The task force acknowledges that conscience-bound faithful Christians find themselves on different sides of this issue. The task force also acknowledges that we are bound not only in our own consciences but in love to the conscience of the other. Because of the lack of consensus in our Church, the task force believes that we need to respect our differences and accept the different places in which the baptized find themselves. The recommendation affirms that our distinctive positions on this issue should not be church dividing. No congregation will be pressured to call any pastor they do not wish to call.

Now...all that having been said, what do I think? Mostly, I think they've done a good job. Their recommendation includes a reference to Luther's declaration, while speaking in his own defense at the Diet of Worms, that he was bound in conscience by the Word of God and that "It is neither safe nor right to go against conscience." The report continues,

The emphasis of "conscience-bound" is not on declaring oneself to be conscience-bound. Rather, we are bound in love by the conscience of the other--that is, we recognize the conscience-bound nature of the convictions of others in the community of Christ. For Lutherans, the reality that people hold convictions from deep faith that may be in conflict with the deep faith convictions of others is not merely a procedural or political difficulty. As sisters and brothers in Christ we bear one another's burdens. For one member to suffer because her or his conscience has been offended is for all of us to suffer...the task force asks members of this church to join them in a commitment to honor conscience-bound decisions. However, the recognize that such honoring may lead to some diversity of practice within this church. ...nevertheless, the task force invites this church to continue and even deepen its ability to concentrate on finding ways to live together faithfully in the midst of our disagreements.

In other words, as conscience-bound Christians, each of us is entitled, after prayerfully sweating out our own theological position, to say with Luther, "Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me." But we need to recognize that it may cost us everything. And this task force wants very much for us to remember that, while we're all living in our own deepest truths, we must try to trust that others are also doing so...and to take their commitment as seriously as our own, that we might not break the Body.

I have to say, that's a large thing to ask of anyone...especially a member of an oppressed minority or (I must admit) someone who's staked their life's work and their soul on a particular position, whatever that may be. Ay, there's the rub. But that is part of what I love about being a Lutheran--these conversations are serious, and we're all asked to do the hard stuff.

Finally, toward the end:

Most, but not all, members of the task force believe that it is undesirable and unrealistic to continue with existing policy in its present form. They feel this approach would fail to honor the conscience-bound lack of consensus in this church. They also believe that continuing current policy does not serve the mission and ministry of this church in instances where a member in a publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationship is the person determined to be best suited for a particular call...though no policy can be fully in accord with this church's diversity of convictions, the majority of the task force believes that the conscience-bound lack of consensus will be respected most faithfully by providing for some level of structured flexibility of decision-making.

In other words, they're:
  • recommending a "local option" scenario, while
  • asking us to remember that we're all members of one Body of Christ and
  • recognizing that this will be painful for most people, to varying degrees. No one gets everything they want.
Seems pretty positive to me...which is an evolution from my initial "justice is justice, dammit" standpoint. Viva la revolucion, and all that.

It's funny--though I want to, I still can't quite trust that that bigotry and lack of understanding aren't at the root of the "anti-change" position; however, I can recognize that it isn't necessarily productive to demand that people change their hearts and minds, This Instant.

Kahlil Gibran once described pain as the "cracking of the shell that encompasses your present understanding." I think that this document acknowledges that everyone, on every side, needs to be willing to experience that cracking bear the pain for the sake of their sisters and brothers, for the Body of Christ. That's vigorously Christian. I like it.

I also like "gift and trust," and think it can only be positive for all relationships to be lived out in the light of long as the "public accountability" is offered in the same spirit of public support that is offered to hetero relationships. Their careful definition of "conscience bound" is helpful, as well, I think--it demands that we take seriously the conscience of the Other, as much as our own.

This is an evolutionary, but not a revolutionary position. Pragmatically speaking, I think this has a chance of appealing to everyone enough to move the church forward. I'd like that. I want my friend B to be ordained; she has a clearer call to it than almost anyone I know.

Also noted--from what I've read thus far of the Statement, it seems a bit grimmer than it might be; not so much emphasis on the "sexuality as created gift" part as on the "we're sinners saved by grace" part. Bit of a buzz-kill. :-)

And, admittedly, though my rational mind sees this effort as positive (assuming, of course, that it's passed by the Assembly next August) part of me still screams "Now! Now! Full inclusion and recognition NOW! Justice!" Because it's true that "separate but equal" is usually neither.

But, in our human framework, justice almost never rolls like God's waters in a mighty stream, matter how cathartic and satisfying the idea of it is. Usually it arrives an inch at a time, and that because some folks really put their backs into it.

I think that the Task Force did. I hope that the voting Assembly will think so, too, and will be brave enough to allow the shell around our Church's present understanding to crack.

I'm cautiously optimistic.


Cecilia said...

Some of this language sounds very much like what the Calvinists did not too long ago... especially the "conscience-bound" part. It was not a slam dunk for either "side." Now, as that church votes, will be the test of whether people can live with an outcome they deplore.

So far ten presbyteries have switched from "con" to "pro". It's stunning. I am dizzy with fearful hope/ hopeful fear.

Pax, C.

Caryn said...

Dear Jodi,
Thank you for this incredibly thoughtful synopsis of the now revised, public, ELCA social statement, Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust, as well as your personal reflection.

I too believe, that you, B. and J. and so many others are divinely gifted to serve God, the Church and the world, openly and truthfully as rostered leaders. The Gospel requires it!

I'm more hopeful than previously, and yet already a bit on edge regarding each succeeding step.

God's grace and peace.

LutheranChik said...

I understand the fearful hope/hopeful fear thing. My lay ministry activities, and my partner, are both so accepted in my congregation that it's been easy on occasion to become complacent about the whole know, "Well, the others can do what they want, but all's right with the world here in our little corner of Lutherland." But of course whenever the church as a whole starts seriously talking about this stuff I feel a little pang of fear that some heretofore unknown rump faction in the congregation is going to begin making things hard for my partner and me. And even if this doesn't happen...I don't want to be a cause celebre'. I just want to be me, doing what I feel I'm called to do.

Shalom said...

Thanks for your very helpful and incisive thoughts. I really appreciate the Gibran quote, and the 'evolutionary, not revolutionary' framework. I haven't had a chance to read all the documents yet, but I'm thankful for your take on it.

Diane Vogel Ferri said...

Your account is so eloquent. Thanks you. We can only be hopeful and pray that someday.....

mompriest said...

The Episcopal Church meets this summer too...we'll see what comes from our session...we have nothing nearly as thought-out as this document...and, yes, what the ELCA has put forth might serve as an inspiration to us all...I too am cautiously optimistic even as I want to shout, JUSTICE NOW!

Dennis Sanders said...

Well said, my dear!

vrudloff said...

You are much kinder and thoughtful than I am on this subject. I am much more impatient with what I think is a bigoted and unfair approach to including all people who have been called to serve. This is probably why you would make a good pastor and I would not!

B said...

Hey Dear!

Still cautiously optimistic ... praying, longing and aching for dangerously hopeful! Thank you for your faith-filled take on this very personal issue (for the both of us!)

Love all around ... to all siblings in Christ! B