People of God at St. Stephen,

Christ is our unity.  This is neither a hope nor a demand but a fact of the church.  Christ unites us.  Because Christ unites us, diversity in the church is a sign of beauty and strength.  So we gather together—not in our disagreements or differences—but at the foot of the cross.

Such was evident at the 2009 Churchwide Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.  Voting members, lay and clergy, from all 64 ELCA synods met in Minneapolis, Minnesota for a week.  The purpose was to discern God’s will on a host of important matters, including the Lutheran Malaria Initiative (LMI), a campaign to end malaria in Africa by 2015; a “full-communion” agreement to share communion tables and pulpits between the ELCA and United Methodist Church; “Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust,” a proposed ELCA social statement; and a proposal to change ELCA ministry policy to allow pastors and lay professionals in committed same-gender relation-ships to serve the church.

Throughout the week, worship was our center.  The assembly paused daily, sometimes after intense debate, to worship together at the foot of the cross.  We worshipped in many styles and languages, including Spanish, Arabic, Inupiaq, and Korean.  We sang songs familiar and new.  But always we ate the same spiritual food, the blood and body of Jesus Christ, who knits us anew into one in his own holy body.

While the LMI, the full-communion agreement, and the social statement passed, the assembly’s decisions receiving the most media attention are those concerning ELCA ministry policies.  “Lutheran Group Eases Limits on Gay Clergy” read an August 22 New York Times headline.  Even the best headlines and press coverage can mislead, and also many rumors abound.  So what happened and how did we get here?

Since the ELCA was formed in 1989, gay and lesbian people were allowed to serve as clergy and rostered lay professionals only if they vowed celibacy.  As soon as that policy was put in place, conversation began about changing it.  Finally and as a result, in 2001 the ELCA in assembly initiated a four-year study, creating a “Task Force on Human Sexuality” to engage Lutheran congregations in prayer and bible study.  (I have heard that members of St. Stephen participated in 2002 in this study, called “Journey Together Faithfully.”)  Then the task force was to suggest ministry policy for gay and lesbian pastors and lay professionals and to write a social statement on human sexuality.

To no surprise, the study revealed a diverse church.  Faithful Lutherans read the same holy scriptures and pray through the same Holy Spirit but come to different conclusions about whether gay and lesbian clergy and lay professionals can both serve the church and share their life with a beloved partner.

When the task force proposed a complicated exceptions process to the ELCA’s prohibitive ministry policy, the 2005 Churchwide Assembly voted no.  Still, the assembly was clearly unsatisfied with existing policy.  In 2007, another Church-wide Assembly took up these questions but made no decision, instead inviting the task force to draft a second proposal for ministry policy.  That second proposal, with the proposed social statement on human sexuality, came before this Churchwide Assembly in Minneapolis.  (Pastor Sara was as a voting member at this assembly, along with 15 others from New Jersey and over 1,000 from across the country.  I attended as a visitor—no voice, no vote—as I did in 2007 and 2005.)

Both the social statement and the ministry policy passed, amid much worship, prayer, and intense debate.  The social statement names human sexuality as God’s good gift to all people, yet addresses a wide range of signs of brokenness that threaten to obscure the created goodness of human sexuality: divorce, sexual abuse, sex-trafficking, a culture of sexual promiscuity, and the commodification of sex.  On the question of blessing same-gender relationships, the statement only reports the diversity and lack of consensus among faithful people.  The statement needed a two-thirds majority to be adopted; to a vote, it received exactly that.

The proposed changes to ministry policy required only a simple (fifty percent, plus one) majority to be adopted.  No policy of the ELCA has ever required more.  Each of the four parts of the ministry policy proposal were considered in turn, three principles and one directing their implementation.  Will we respect the bound consciences of all, even as we disagree?  Will we find a way to affirm and support gay and lesbian people in “publicly-accountable, lifelong, monogamous relationships”?  Will we find a way to affirm and support clergy and lay professionals in such relationships?  Finally, will we direct the church-wide body of the ELCA to make the way we agreed to find?  All four parts passed with 77, 61, 55, and 68 percent of the vote, respectively.

What does this mean?  It means no congregation will be forced to call a gay or lesbian pastor in a relationship.  Neither will any congregation be forbidden from doing so.

Will the ELCA split?  Some have suggested or threatened so.  Some people and congregations may leave the ELCA, as some have done already, but a wholesale split is unlikely.  In 1961, the Lutheran church in assembly considered allowing women to be ordained pastors, and some laughed outloud.  In 1970, Lutherans voted to let women be pastors by 57%.  Once ridiculed and then with 43% voting against it for biblical reasons, the church did not split.  We did not split because our unity depends not on who can or cannot be a pastor.  Instead our unity depends on Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, whose love and forgiveness shepherds us all.  Diversity does not split the church, not even diversity around central matters like scripture or worship.  Christ unites us.

Because of these decisions, many are now experiencing deep loss and the sense that their beloved church has abandoned scripture.  At the same time, many are now experiencing deep joy and the hope that biblical stories of God’s liberation and transformation are trustworthy and true.  Together these are signs that, as always, we are a diverse church, called by Christ our unity to love one another, to mourn with the grieving and rejoice with the joyful.

Of course, this is impossible for us humans.  But, as Paul proclaimed to a diverse church in Philippi, all things are possible through Christ who strengthens us.

Pastor Clark Olson-Smith

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