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)
Countryman: Dirt, Greed and Sex: Sexual Ethics in the New Testament and Their Implications for Today
Helminiak: What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality
Catholic Church Consecrates Gay Bishop ( Gay Marriage & Gay Bishops in History)
Countering the Clobber Texts
In the wake of the disappointing, but expected, Californian ruling on Prop 8, it is worth stepping back and reflecting on the gains elsewhere, and especially on the impact on the churches.
It is well known how rapidly legal recognition of same sex marriage has progressed: first in Iowa, by court order, then in rapid succession Vermont and Maine by legislative action. New Hampshire is not quite there yet, but it is likely just a matter of time – as it is in New York and New Jersey. DC has voted to recognise marriages legally conducted elsewhere, Washington has approved expansion of their civil union regime to ‘everything but marriage’, and in many other states and city jurisdictions, there have been less dramatic, incremental gains. These have been widely reported and celebrated.
One big advance, and the one that I suspect may be more important for its long term impact on the churches of the world, has drawn remarkably little attention. The day before the Iowa announcement, and drowned out of the news by the drama of developments in Iowa and New England, The Swedish parliament, with the minimum of fuss or fanfare, and the support of all the major parties, voted to make Sweden the fith country in Europe to recognise same sex marriage. For those of us in Europe, especially if we are committed to the ideal of ever closer union, this is obviously more significant than the stop-start progress in some minor American states and cities. But I believe that the significance for all of us is substantial, particularly if we are professed Christians. Why?
In the US, and also here in the UK, the legal provisions for same sex marriage or civil unions/partnerships, where they exist, are quite specifically for ‘civil’ marriage or partnerships. Indeed, the British legislation specifically prohibits the use of religious language or premises for the ceremony; increasinlgy, US legislators are cradting thier gains by spelling out the the legislation proposed places no obligations on religious minsters, or even staff.
The Swedish situation is quite different. The legislation quite specifically provides for legal recognition of either civil or church marriage. This has huge implications for the Swedish Lutheran Church, which until recently was the official state church of the country, with special status, even funding, in the legal system. This has changed, but the informal ties and status remain strong. So what was the response of the church? Did they start weeping and wailing and gnashing there teeth? Did they lament the moral decadence of the country? Did they offer grudging toleration, with ifs and buts to demand a right of opt-out? None of the above. a final decision awaits a full synod later in the summer, but the provisional, formal response was that the church would understand and ‘excuse’ any pastor who, as a matter of conscience, felt s/he could NOT preside over same sex weddings. That’s right – the specail consideration and understanding goes to those who are opposed: the default position, buy Sweden’s major church, is to take in their stride same sex marriage conducted in church. Unless I have wildly misread the situation, this is likely to be the standard position after the synod later this year.
This will have important ripple effects, notably elsewhere in the EU. Pressure for marriage equality will undoubtedly continue to spread across the EU, particularly in Western Europe. When (not if), equality reaches Germany and Austria, the German Lutheran church, and also the German and Austrian Catholic churches, will have to consider carefully their position. All of them have special state recognition and funding. Even in advance of legislation, just the propect of pressure for marriage, is forcing the churches into hard tactical consideration – faced with an emergin gay marriage lobby, the Portuguese Bishops proposed civil partnerships as a compromise solution – thus embracing the very proposal that there English counterparts strongly opposed a few years back.
In the English speaking world, the troubles caused to the Anglican Communion (which includes the Episcopalians) by disputes over homosexuality are well known. But while skirmishing continues, it is clear that over the longer term view, the tide is clearly turning in the direction of greater acceptance. The continuning expansion of legal recognition of civil marriage across the USA is already forcing more and more individual pastors, and local jursdictions, into fresh consideration of their own stance – and an increasing minority are coming down on the side of at least blessing, and possibly solemnising, these unions in church. Every synod season sees new debates on these. Where there is not yet victory, the margins of defeat are generally narrowing.
For me, the most heartening aspect of this, is the increasing number of reports I am seeing of sincere religious clergy of goodwill, who have found themselves prayerfully re-examining scriptures, theology and church history in search of guidance – and concluding that established church strictures against homosexuallity are without scriptural foundation, and misguided. (The recently released survey of ‘mainline protestant clergy’ attitudes to SSM has some fascinating figures on this).
There is no longer any doubt: marriage equality is spreading steadily across the world, and across the US. As it does so, the churches will increasingly be forced to grapple with, and re-examine, their own beliefs. In doing so, many will reverse long-standing opposition to same sex relationships, and see the value of recognising commitment, whatever the orientation or gender of the partners.
The Catholic church will be behind the trend – but will not resist indefinitely. Here, too, truth will triumph in the end.
Same Sex Marriage: coming (soon) to a church near you – but not yet to a Catholic parish.