Sometimes “unity” comes in strange ways. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, at their recently completed Churchwide Assembly, took several significant steps with regard to the place of gay and lesbian Christians in their church.
First of all, they passed an extremely well-done social statement on human sexuality. Then, they passed four resolutions concerning the implications of that social statement on the internal life of the ELCA. The effect of these was to open the door for the recognition of faithful, monogamous, relationships between members of the same gender and to permit those living in such relationships to serve as “rostered leaders” (including clergy) in the ELCA.
This will surely not advance cause of Christian unity directly anymore than similar decisions made by The Episcopal Church has. There will be defections from the ELCA, ecumenical relations especially with the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches, as well as with the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (to the extent that the ELCA even had any ecumenical relationship with that smaller Lutheran body!), and there will be pain and distress from some — as well as joy and relief for others.
How then could this possibly foster church unity? Well, perhaps we are beginning to see new alignments and new partners across the Christian world. Some European Lutheran bodies have long been more inclusive of homosexual persons. A number of the Old Catholic churches in Europe (with which we are in full communion) have taken similar steps. Ditto the United Church of Christ. And the Anglican Church in Canada is about to.
The United Methodist, Presbyterian, and Moravian churches here in the U.S. may become emboldened to take steps forward in this direction. Certainly they will have empathy for decisions made by their full communion partners in the ELCA since they are facing the same realities in their own churches.
It is too soon to see what all this will mean in God’s time. The worst case scenario is that we will see a realignment of liberal Protestant churches driven more by cultural accommodation than by theological reflection and prayerful discernment (although the thoughtful ELCA social statement hardly signals that).
The best case scenario is that the Holy Spirit is once again shaking the Church by blowing winds of change. Like the acceptance of Gentiles in the New Testament, the 16th century Reformation, the establishment of The Episcopal Church on these shores free from control by the Church of England, liturgical renewal, women’s ordination, and other such developments.
All these are based on the centrality of baptism and the fact that “…as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There really is neither Jew nor Greek…slave nor free…male nor female; for you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:27-28)
That is a unity perhaps hard to see at present, but infinitely deeper than institutional uniformity.
Time will tell. And only God knows.