The decisions of the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church of America) this week have rightly received a lot of attention, and are clearly significant to Lutherans, and to the rest of us: but not only for the obvious reasons.
First, it is hugely important to the openly gay & lesbian partnered pastors already serving the church, and to their congregations. In spite of the previous prohibition, there are many of these across the country, but because of the ban, they may not be officially recognised. The result is that there are listed “vacancies” where good people, who could not be recognised as legitimate simply because they were openly gay and partnered.
“To be able to be a full member of the church is really a lifelong dream,” said the Rev. Megan Rohrer of San Francisco, who is in a committed same-sex relationship and serves in three Lutheran congregations but is not officially on the church’s roster of clergy members. “I don’t have to have an asterisk next to my name anymore.” (NY Times)
Secondly, it is important for other recognised gay clergy who could not be open, or could not enter partnerships, for fear of losing their recognition. These people can now choose celibacy or marriage, as they prefer, without fear – provided they are serving, or can find, a supportive congregation (local approval remains important.) Note however, that the emphasis is on “committed”, as in legally recognised, permanent partnerships comparable to conventional marriage.
In essence, the vote puts gays under the same set of rules that have govern heterosexual clergy. They are required to be monogamous if married and to abstain from sexual relations if they are single. Individual congregations would not be compelled to take on pastors who are in same-sex relationships. (Washington Post)
The assembly also signed off on finding ways for willing congregations to “recognize, support and hold publicly accountable lifelong, monogamous, same gender relationships.” The church fell short of calling that gay marriage, but conservatives see that as the next step.(AP)
It will also pressure the Lutherans themselves to take further decisions on consecrating gay marriages in church. Else, how can they explain a requirement that gay clergy be married, but not allow them to be married in church?
Thirdly, it is important symbolically, encouraging gay and lesbian Christians, and lending momentum to similar pressures in other denominations and elsewhere. Over the past two years, American Presbyterians and United Methodists have declined to pass similar resolutions – but those votes will return in future years, and will be passed (sooner, rather than later, I would think).
“Those who have been actively campaigning for a change of this sort in the other mainline denominations will see this as a sign that they should intensify their efforts,” Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, said in an e-mail. (LA Times)
But the most important aspect of all, in my view, with the furthest reaching implications for all of us, has largely slipped under the radar. The biggest headlines have been on the clergy decision, and on the procedural vote before it, as these are the most clearly dramatic – but in effect, simply regularise an existing de facto situation. In this, the decision resembles the abolition in South Africa of the abhorrent Group Areas Act, which enforced residential separation, and other laws of so-called “petty apartheid”. By the time of the final repeal, these laws had fallen into such disrepute, that they were being widely ignored. Many of the people who could afford to move into the “White” areas had already done so. The law was not so much ground-braking change, as a simple attempt to come to terms with the plain reality. To some extent, so it is here.
No, the really important part for all of us as lesbigaytrans Christians came buried in just a few paragraphs in an earlier decision, approving a revised statement on sexual morality. This statement, after eight years of study and preparation, sets new parameters for the interpretation of Scripture in defining sexual morality.
“Barbara Wheeler, a former president of Auburn Theological Seminary in New York who is now director of the school’s Center for the Study of Theological Education, praised the ELCA for laying a theological foundation for Friday’s vote by first approving a broad social statement on sexuality.
“It’s a completely theological argument toward openness to the possibility of faithful, committed same-sex relationships,” said Wheeler, who has played a central role in gay clergy deliberations inside the Presbyterian Church (USA). “What you’re seeing is two things: The society is in the process of changing its collective mind about the moral status of same-sex relationships, and there’s a parallel theological movement.” (AP)
For far too long, the struggle for gay rights has been seen as one that pits civil rights against Scripture. By taking these decisions after long deliberation, including careful consideration of Scripture in the light of modern scholarship, the ECLA has shown that he two are not inherently in conflict. This will lead other open-minded church people of good will to take a further look at Scripture for themselves, and some of hem too will find that the typical resort to Scripture as a basis for opposition is misguided. on the other hand, the bigots who continue to fall back on knee jerk calls to Scripture as a cover for their prejudice or hatred, will find that they no longer receive he automatic support they once did.
The Scriptural argument against same sex relationships is being defanged.
(See also The Wild Reed on the same topic;
and for exensive coverage of events from the inside, see Goodsoil)
Catholic Church Consecrates Gay Bishop ( Gay Marriage & Gay Bishops in History)