Decisions of a Christian Assembly


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!        

10 Responses to “Decisions of a Christian Assembly”

  1. kfry Says:

    Interesting view of Lutherans and our need to get our theology straight. I wish this was really about theology and not homophobia, pure and simple, justifed by a literal and very unLutheran reading of Scripture. I was at that assembly; my reflections are at

  2. ecubishop Says:

    Well, kfry, undoubtedly it’s both. Homophobia is real and rampant. But theological anthropology is part of this discussion. It has to be addressed sooner or later. By the way, I couldn’t get to your website — says it’s “temporarily unavailable.” I’ll try later…

  3. DHFabian Says:

    It seems to me that the issue of poverty should be at the top of the list of priorities, as a matter of faith, as a matter of morality. These issues are fundamental to Christianity itself, central to Christ’s teachings. We still hear public discussion about poverty/welfare being a matter of choice, equal to the choice of taking a paid vacation from work. We ignore the fact that the meager aid that exists today is sub-poverty level, time-restricted, and stripped of those former programs that enabled people to work their way out of poverty. We still don’t address the fact that public funds for humanitarian aid for our poor were redirected into paying for the years long string of “tax breaks” for corporations/the wealthiest 1%. We still consider poverty a matter of choice, with no public concept of the degree of suffering and death experienced by America’s poor today, as a direct result of our welfare “reform” policies.

  4. ecubishop Says:

    I couldn’t agree more, and there is always much more to be done. However, you might check out the websites of the two premier ecumenical
    entities in this country:

    The National Council of Churches (scroll down the left side of the homepage to “Reducing Poverty”)


    Christian Churches Together in the USA (see the Poverty Statement)

  5. thomas bushnell, bsg Says:

    nothing about deacons? has the elca essentially removed that topic definitively from discussion?

  6. ecubishop Says:


    Oh boy, have you touched a nerve! The Lutheran-Episcopal Coordinating Committee has spent *hours* and *days* on this issue. We tried to deal with “orderly exchange” of deacons (TEC) and diaconal ministers (ELCA) and ran into an incrediable buzz saw.

    While many ELCA leaders want to go to a clear, three-fold minstry and an ordained diaconate, the church has adopted a ministry study which speaks of one order of (ordained) ministry of Word and Sacrament. Exchanging ordained and “lay” ministers between our two churches is problematic.

    We are willing to raise the issue, but they are so concerned about putting the whole relationship on the table these days, and opening the whole question up for “Word Alone” (their version of “the Network”) to try, once again, to scuttle the full communion relationship means that they would rather leave this alone for now.

    As one who has supported, and been involved in formation for, the diaconate since 1972…and happens to be married to the Executive Director of the North American Association for the Diaconate…this is very painful for me.

  7. kfry Says:

    Try this link –

  8. ecubishop Says:

    Thanks! Hey, I’m glad it’s “faith.”

  9. thomas bushnell, bsg Says:

    yeah, i know it’s an issue for you too. as for “one order of ministry”, it’s important to recall that this is also a rallying cry against the distinction of presbyter and bishop, and i think it was never addressed properly there either in the concordat issue.

    (that is, there was an excellent agreed statement on “all of theology” except for ministry, explicitly postponed for the second statement, and that second statement simply addressed the practicalities of how the historic succession would be introduced into the elca, while skipping over [it seemed to me] the theological foundation. i fear this is part of what we now get, that work apparently having never been done.)

  10. Linda McMillan Says:

    Rather well!

    Well, if you consider postponing justice “rather well.”

    I certainly am glad all Christendom wasn’t waiting around for the Lutherans to get their christological theology in place before Jesus came. What they did was not a step forward at all, it was the success of a delaying tactic.

    Linda McMillan

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