At the same time, revisionist pastors, bishops, and laypersons voiced approval of the “progress” made at Orlando. They lamented the unwillingness of the assembly to endorse two of the three proposals submitted by the Church's leadership. But the revisionists, too, are willing to stay in the ELCA, because they think time and momentum is on their side. The future, they think, is theirs.
The assessments of both sides contain some truth. The orthodox Lutherans succeeded in defeating two key proposals of the leadership regarding sexuality issues. Yet, as the revisionists believe, the forces pushing the ELCA toward accommodating liberal Protestant attitudes on those issues are still powerfully at work.
The summer assembly in Orlando faced three proposals, the latter two of which would have created large shifts in the ELCA's relation to the larger Christian world. The first proposal asked Church members to “find ways to live together faithfully in the midst of our disagreements” about same-sex unions. The second declared respect for the guidance of the 1993 statement of the Conference of Bishops that there is no basis in scripture or tradition to bless gay and lesbian unions, but at the same time required Lutherans to trust their pastors and congregations to offer appropriate pastoral care to same-sex couples. And the third proposal allowed gays and lesbians in partnered relationships to be ordained in exceptional cases and circumstances for “the sake of mission.”
These three proposals represented the Church Council's revision of the three proposals of the Sexuality Task Force, which had spent three years and over a million dollars to come up with a political compromise rather than a normative theological judgment on homosexual conduct. As it happens, the task force had found that at least 56 percent—probably more like 66 percent—of the respondents to its studies opposed changes in Church teachings or practices. But the ELCA leadership pressed forward. The Church Council voted 30-2 to forward its proposals to the assembly.
At the assembly, nearly all the bishops of metropolitan and West Coast synods spoke forcefully for the council proposals. Six out of the seven preachers at daily worship implicitly or explicitly endorsed them. Seminary professors and retired Presiding Bishop Chilstrom spoke for the proposals. Leaders of the youth assembly were trotted out to announce their near unanimous support for the Council proposals. At least 150 persons—including many voting members—wore rainbow scarves in support of blessing same-sex unions and ordaining homosexual pastors. They conducted a silent protest in the front of the assembly hall after the second Church Council proposal was tightened by an amendment.
But most effective for the revisionists was the atmosphere of the assembly, which was charged with what one could call “the spirit of progressive Protestantism.” That atmosphere was intimidating to those who supported traditional teachings and policies, and dramatically different from what ordinary Lutherans experience in their congregations.
Two well-organized dissenting groups stood against this progressive movement: Solid Rock for Lutherans and Word Alone. Their research indicated that they had around four hundred voting supporters at the assembly while their opponents (led by a group called Goodsoil) had around three hundred. The remaining assembly members, about three hundred, were the ones who would swing the assembly, one way or another. As it turned out, the middle did not do much swinging. It did not want much change, but it did not want firm teaching and practice either.
Solid Rock tried to get the Church Council and the task force to clarify the second proposal, which seemed to affirm traditional teaching even while allowing local pastors and congregations to bless gay unions under the guise of “pastoral care.” But the Church leadership tenaciously refused to clarify the issue, and some members argued this ambiguity was an example of the “paradoxical nature” of Lutheran theology.
Attempts to clarify the proposal in both directions were defeated. Bishop Neils of the Grand Canyon Synod tried to clarify the proposal by having it explicitly affirm the blessing of gay unions, but lost by a two-to-one margin. Solid Rock then offered a substitute motion that applied the Conference of Bishops 1993 statement consistently to all levels of the Church's life, including its pastoral care, which also lost, 42 percent to 58 percent.
Then Lower Susquehanna Bishop Carol Hendrix, who had spoken in favor of the Solid Rock clarification, offered an amendment that brought the proposal in line with the 1993 bishops' statement (which did not even mention same-sex couples when it dealt with pastoral care). Hendrix's amendment said that pastors and congregations should welcome gays and lesbians into the life of the Church and “trust pastors and congregations to discern ways to provide faithful pastoral care for all to whom they minister.” This was viewed a small victory by Solid Rock, bringing relief to those who feared dramatic change. The proposal, however, is still ambiguous enough to allow revisionists to continue blessing same-sex unions without fear of discipline.
The third proposal, which would have allowed ordination of gays and lesbians in partnered relationships under an exceptional process, needed two-thirds of the votes of the assembly to pass (because it would mean a change in the Church's by-laws). In the end, it did not achieve even 50 percent, going down by 503 to 490. The revisionists were disappointed while the orthodox were disturbed that there were that many who supported such ordinations.
Traditionalists were able to persuade the assembly not to take that last fateful step over the brink on sexuality issues. But many other actions and agitations at the assembly suggest the momentum of the ELCA will soon overcome all hesitation. The leadership, which created the atmosphere of progressive Protestantism at the assembly, pushed through programs that in many ways are more disturbing than those it proposed on sexuality issues, particularly those dealing with worship, governance, and political matters such as the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
For instance, the leadership proposed—and the assembly affirmed—a process that will lead to a new hymnal, which will alter the words of the Nicene and Apostles' Creeds so that hypersensitive feminists will not be offended by masculine language. In the Nicene Creed we will avoid confessing that Christ was “made man.” Rather, he “became human.” In the Apostles' Creed we will evade a masculine pronoun for God in the second article. Instead of “We believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son,” we will now confess that “We believe in Jesus Christ, God's only Son.” The ELCA is now willing to risk a heretical formulation of the Creed in favor of femspeak. (In a Trinitarian formula the Son is Son of the Father, not of the Triune God. The Son of the Triune God would be another God.)
Many of the Psalms are to be rewritten to circumvent masculine pronouns. A hymn, paraphrasing the twenty-third psalm, changed “The Lord is my shepherd” to “God is my shepherd.” The “Renewing Worship” materials used at the assembly shunned “Father,” “Lord,” and “Master,” all replaced by “God.” Not one ELCA official allowed a “his” or “he” to creep into a speech. The presiding bishop even used the horrific neologism “Godself” a number of times.
On governance matters, the ELCA retained the quota system that is now deeply embedded in its polity. Minorities are over-represented by five times their number. Women pastors are over-represented by two and a half times. Laity constitute sixty percent of the assembly. Aimed at minimizing the presence of white male clergy, these representational principles skew the assembly ideologically and have the effect of profoundly weakening the presence of theologians. Reorganization of the national church office sharply centralized power, and there will be little in the new organization to check the presiding bishop. Word Alone tried to expand the Church Council to include elected members from each of the ELCA's sixty-five synods, but to no avail. The gap between the Church's offices in Chicago and the local parishes will be widened by these actions.
The most egregious of the progressive actions foisted upon the assembly was a campaign called “Peace Not Walls—Stand for Justice in the Holy Land,” which chastises Israel for building a wall partly on Palestinian lands. The glossy sheet passed out to explain the program is replete with inflammatory words such as “occupation,” “confiscating land and water,” and calling “for an immediate halt to construction of the wall.” The brochure nowhere mentions terrorism or the right of Israel to protect itself. It asks ELCA members to call upon President Bush to stop the construction of the wall. The assembly was strongly pressed to accept this grossly biased approach to a complex issue. Bishop Rimbo spoke glowingly of the campaign and arranged for Bishop Munib Younan of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land to address the assembly by telephone. The Bishop then proceeded to offer a highly politicized message. Though there were many stirring attacks from the floor on the proposal, it passed handily, 668-279. This happened in spite of a half-page advertisement in USA Today by a Jewish organization pleading for fairness by the ELCA and an exhortation to be balanced by Rabbi Eric Yoffie, who brought greetings from the Jewish community to the assembly.
All this progressive agitating comes from the national level of the ELCA, just as it comes from the national headquarters of the United Church of Christ, the United Methodist Church, the Episcopal Church of the USA, and the Presbyterian Church USA. The leadership of these denominations are thorough-going liberal Protestants. From its inception and with increasing momentum, the ELCA has identified itself with these declining mainline denominations. The ecumenical relationships it really celebrates are those with these mainline bodies. Indeed, Bishop Hanson of the ELCA quotes his counterpart in the United Church of Christ, John Thomas, more frequently than any other leader.
Liberal Protestants have increasingly substituted a different gospel for the classic one in which sinners are freed from sin, death, and the devil by the grace of God in Christ's death and resurrection. The liberal Protestant establishment, while it possesses some remnants of the classic formulation, focuses on a gospel of liberation from oppressive ideologies and institutions: racism, sexism, heterosexism, monoculturalism, and imperialism.
Sadly, the ELCA has now embraced the liberal Protestant agenda. Once one understands that this version of the gospel is actually the working theology of the ELCA, the actions and agitations of the Churchwide Assembly can be placed in a meaningful context. The themes of liberal Protestantism have become the non-negotiable items in the agenda of the ELCA, and it fights for them ceaselessly. Thus it stands firmly for quotas (to fight racism and monoculturalism), unqualified abortion rights (to fight sexism), the homosexual agenda (to fight heterosexism), centralization of power (to fight the benighted masses of the church who are infected with all the “-isms”), a relentless purging of masculine language from worship materials (to fight sexism), and left-wing foreign policy positions on Iraq and Israel (to fight imperialism).
Few Lutherans—either traditional or progressive—believe the ELCA's liberal agenda has been halted by the resistance mounted in Orlando. Though the assembly witnessed a brief pause on homosexual issues, the movement pushing the ELCA is as strong as ever. A new association to oppose the progressive drive of the Lutheran Church is being formed this fall, in the hope that an orthodox movement will go beyond resistance and find a positive strategy for “taking back the ELCA.” It will first attempt to re-center the church on the gospel as Lutherans have traditionally understood it. By the assembly of 2007 the organization should be well established and active. There is no way of knowing whether such a strategy will be successful, but it seems worth expending such effort to revive a great church.
Robert Benne was a voting member of the Virginia Synod at the Churchwide Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in Orlando, Florida, in August. He directs the Roanoke College Center for Religion and Society in Salem, Virginia.