Divorce, Lutheran style (January 2011)

Started by Richard Johnson, March 02, 2011, 07:00:51 PM

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Richard Johnson

Divorce, Lutheran style
Forum Letter, January 2001
©2011 American Lutheran Publicity Bureau. All rights reserved.

Most of us are far too familiar with the messiness of divorce. We've seen it among friends, parishioners, perhaps in our own families. Good-hearted and reasonable people turn vindictive, nasty, and stubborn—and perhaps particularly the party who did not choose to leave.
It's not much different with institutions, and we are seeing this in many ways in the slow separation taking place in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Week by week, there are new examples. We commented briefly in November about The Lutheran's rather testy editorial claiming that the North American Lutheran Church is "a classic case of schism."
The magazine will also limit its reporting on which congregations have left our union, preferring an annual accounting rather than a month-by-month report. ELCA Secretary David Swartling periodically releases the number of congregations that have taken first or second votes to leave, and the number that have succeeded. In his most recent report, as of December 7, some 666 congregations have taken a first vote. (December 7 has some ominous historical connections, and 666—well, you know; but I personally think this is just an eerie coincidence from which no particular conclusions should be drawn.) He says that 308 congregations have left since the sexuality decisions. Some unofficial sources put that number slightly higher, but still it represents a very small percentage of ELCA congregations. David Barnhart, a pastor who left the ELCA and now seems to take unseemly pleasure in tracking the defections on his blog, says those who have left in the last year represent 235,568 baptized members. I'm as confident of that as I am of any church membership statistics.

There are votes, and then there are votes
Different bishops are responding to these votes in different ways. One of the oddest situations has occurred in the Northeastern Iowa Synod. Zion Lutheran Church in Clear Lake, IA, took a first vote in May to leave the ELCA, which passed. The second vote in August failed by two votes (out of nearly 500 voting). The Council proceeded to call another congregational meeting to vote again (in essence, a "second second vote"), and that time it passed. Bishop Steve Ullestad, however, with the backing of Swartling, insisted that the constitution allows for only two votes, and that the third meeting, if it was anything at all, was actually another "first vote."

The constitutional language is murky here, and a coherent argument could be made on either side. Zion, weary of arguments, went ahead and voted to affiliate with Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ. Bp. Ullestad responded by saying that this was a schismatic act (since Swartling has ruled that dual affiliation is not permitted)—and as a result, he decreed that the congregation's pastors had, by continuing to serve Zion, removed themselves from the ministry of the ELCA. He sent them the usual letter telling each of them that he is "now to function as a layperson" and "must no longer perform any . . . acts associated with ordained ministry."

Help me understand this. The congregation hasn't properly removed itself from the ELCA, and yet it is schismatic, and so he can remove the pastors. And having removed them because they are now no longer serving an ELCA congregation (even though it still is an ELCA congregation in his view), he can tell them what they can and can't do, and thereby cast doubt on any ministerial acts they may perform. Interesting pastoral approach.   

Nasty things
Meanwhile, the Rev. Dr. Gemechis Buba, who has been the ELCA's Director of African National Ministries, has resigned that position and accepted a call as Missions Director for the new North American Lutheran Church. Dr. Buba has been outspoken in his opposition to the ELCA's decisions regarding sexuality, and this, he says, has "made me a target of many confrontations, persecution and challenges" from other churchwide staff and others in the church. Yet another example of what the ELCA action means in terms of its much vaunted "ethnic ministries"—to say nothing of another light on what "bound conscience" means.
Nasty things, church fights. And as in bitter divorces, absolutely nobody wins.  —by Richard O. Johnson, editor

©2011 American Lutheran Publicity Bureau. All rights reserved.

The Rev. Richard O. Johnson, STS

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