The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America concluded their Churchwide Assembly on Saturday August 11 in Chicago by making three major decisions.
The first was the election of Mr. David D. Swartling, a Seattle attorney, as Secretary of the ELCA. He succeeds The Rev. Lowell Almen who had served as the only Secretary of the Church in the ELCA’s twenty year history. This position is the number two ranking one in the churchwide organization and combines the roles of chief record keeper, guardian of the history and archives, primary interpreter of the church’s constitution and governing documents, and main organizer of the biennial assembly. Mr. Swartling was one of only two lay persons on the slate of eight finalists for the position.
The second major decision was to refer all “memorials” on issues of human sexuality, including the possibility of blessing same gender unions and official rostering of partnered gay and lesbian clergy to the ongoing task force on human sexuality which is preparing a social statement on the topic to be presented to the 2009 Churchwide Assembly. In a related decision, however, the assembly voted to ask bishops and synods to refrain from exercising discipline upon those gay and lesbian clergy who are currently rostered and serving faithfully in their respective callings. It is a baby step “forward” (or “backward” depending on your perspective).
The final action of consequence was passage of a statement on the Middle East which calls for ongoing work for a two-state solution in Israel/Palestine. A late amendment was also adopted calling for investment in the Palestinian territories, consideration of refusing to buy goods or invest in activities taking place in Israeli settlements, and a review of other economic options. This last however specifically precludes the divestment option which had become so controversial in a number of other denominations.
For what it’s worth, I would have the following observtions on those decisions:
The election of a lay person to such an important office in the ELCA is another demonstration of “the ministry of all the baptized” becoming increasingly significant in today’s church. The Christian Church is becoming less dominated by a clerical elite and, gradually, more responsive to the voices of all her members. St. Paul’s vision of the Body of Christ with each member being crucial for the functioning of the whole is, happily, more and more a reality in our midst.
“Kicking final decisions about human sexuality down the road to 2009” will seem to some another delaying tactic and a denial of justice to gay and lesbian persons in the Church. As Lutherans, I cannot imagine that they could have done anything else. Theology is important to Lutherans and, until they have their theology straight, they could not possibly have moved “forward.”
Anglicans, on the other hand, at least Episcopalians, seem to operate on an action/reflection model. First we act, then we reflect on it theologically. Is that “ready, fire, aim”? Or simply the result of our history — the facts of the English Reformation, the consequences of our moving to these shores, the inevitable results of our historic presence in cities, university communities, and along the coasts of this country? We have been confronted by “facts on the ground,” responded to those realities, and then sought to make sense of them theologically. (Sort of like people and communities in the Bible).
The ELCA will inevitably be criticized by the Jewish community for even suggesting a “boycott” of goods produced in the Israeli settlements which most of the world acknowledges are illegal. While I believe blanket “divestment” from companies doing business in Israel is unwise, the Lutheran decision is compatible with their long-standing Middle East policy. And ours, frankly. It is the most gentle of economic sanctions to put teeth in opposition to “the Occupation” of Palestinian territory.
All in all, I think our Lutheran sisters and brothers did rather well!