Thursday, March 17, 2005

Don't Ask? Don't Tell? Just Don't Do Anything.

The governing body with which my church congregation is affiliated, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, has been wrestling with the issue of human sexuality in the church for several years now. A congregation of which I was a member about eleven years ago actually left the ELCA to join a smaller, more conservative denomination over the issue of treating homosexuality as anything other than a sin. (There were other considerations, but that was the thing that pushed the congregation over the edge.) Splitting off like that does little to strengthen the church as a whole. Christian history, at times, seems like a timeline of the birth of new denominations. The last thing the church needs today is another split.

On the other hand, while having all Christians united under one umbrella (or "big tent") would be nice, I abhor large governing organizations. The larger the denomination, the larger the governing body. They tend to be more like political entities than communities of the faithful. The only time that I ever spoke to a Roman Catholic Priest on theological subject matter, he waved a book of Canon Law and said "This is what we have to do because this is what the Catholic church says we have to do". Too bad I didn't have a Bible at hand to wave and say, "This is THE BOOK that my church uses..." For that priest, it wasn't about faith and belief. It was about rules and regulations.

Whereas the Roman Catholic Church is monarchic in structure, the ELCA, like most mainstream Protestant churches, handles things a bit more democratically. This has the effect of leaving serious matters of policy up to a vote, which makes little sense in the context of the scriptural doctrine of a 2,000 year old faith. It was just such a vote that led the congregation mentioned above to leave the ELCA. A focus group in Chicago, where the ELCA is headquartered, decided in 1994 that homosexuality should not be considered a sin. This was not a group that dictates policy; it was an appointed body put together to study one particular issue. Being based in liberal Chicago, the focus group's decision came as no surprise. The majority of pastors and bishops opposed the announcement; if it had been put to a vote, it would have lost. But in the eyes of many, it was the whole ELCA that made a major policy change. One local radio host declared that "the Lutherans have thrown the Bible right out the window!"

Of course they did not, but that proverbial window remains open for the Bible to be thrown through at any time. A local focus group has just done its own study and announced its findings, and neither liberals nor conservatives are happy with it. The Southwest Pennsylvania Synod's Task Force On Human Sexuality recommends that the ELCA maintain its current policies regarding homosexuals in the church, which is to allow homosexuals into the church, but not to allow them to serve as clergy unless they are celibate. The former point is not argued by conservatives in theory, as it illustrates the principle of "hate the sin, love the sinner", but in practice this particular kind of sinner usually comes to church for acceptance rather than repentance. The latter point, gay clergy, was more of an issue in the Episcopal church a couple of years ago due to the elevation of a gay pastor to the rank of bishop. His situation was much more serious, since he basically abandoned his wife and children to go live with a man. There was a much larger sin issue there than just whether or not his being gay was okay, but his family's situation was largely ignored by the media, which wanted to harp on the anti-gay discrimination issue.

A theologian friend of mine several years ago pointed out to me that, according to the Bible, homosexuality is a sin. Are we all sinners? Of course. We are imperfect. Do we confess our sins? We do if we earnestly want to be forgiven. This is called repentance. If a clergyman is a practicing homosexual, he is an unrepentant sinner, and therefore not suited to lead a congregation. That is not repentance, that is defiance.

The Synod group's report, along with similar reports from around the country, is being submitted to the ELCA in anticipation of a unified response to be released later this summer. The governing body has tended to be rather more liberal than the Southwestern PA Synod, so don't expect the final response to please our local clergy. The problem, and the solution, are best summed up by the region's highest ranking clergyman:

Bishop Donald McCoid, head of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Synod, said the church is aware of the range of opinions on this matter but believes "there is still a need for the church to adhere to certain core beliefs and the authority of Scripture that keeps us united as the church of Jesus Christ."

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