Lutherans choose not-so-sudden-death overtime

Rainbow_altarWhen you read about a sporting event, the first thing you what to know is who won and who lost. The same thing applies to elections and U.S. Supreme Court cases.

Of course, writing that kind of story is much easier when a reporter can look up at a scoreboard and read the numbers, or count the votes. It’s tougher when the players and officials in the game are speaking in highly technical, often ancient, theological code and, more than anything else, their goal is to prevent outsiders from being able to tell who won and who lost.

Which brings us to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America task force and its report on how to handle the explosive issue of same-sex unions and the status of clergy who are sexually active outside of marriage. After three years of work, the task force tried to cut the Solomonic baby right down the middle and craft a non-decision decision.

This suggested two things. The ELCA (1) is ready for shared Communion with the via-media experts at the Episcopal Church and (2) the ongoing storm of sex-war headlines will continue in oldline Protestantism as people fight over clashing concepts of truth — experiential progressives vs. traditionalists who stress moral absolutes. The issue of sex outside of marriage (gay and straight) makes for great headlines and points toward more fundamental differences in almost every set of pews in America.

Almost everyone covered this story and many linked the Lutheran events to the wider global conflict in the Anglican Communion. But what interested me were the leads. Almost everyone said that both sides of the conflict were ticked off (maybe). Who really won and who really lost? Let’s go to the instant replays. Thus saith the New York Times:

A task force of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America recommended yesterday that it retain its policy against blessing same-sex unions and ordaining gays, but suggested that sanctions could be avoided for pastors and congregations that chose to do so. … Some clergy members said that by giving local churches and synods wiggle room, the task force had found a way to preserve the unity of the church.

That sounds like a very mixed bag, except that the church’s laws are now meaningless. This reality seems a bit more clear in the Los Angeles Times:

Underscoring deep divisions in the nation’s largest Lutheran denomination, a task force on Thursday called for retaining the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s prohibition against ordaining noncelibate homosexuals, but urged caution in disciplining congregations and clergy who ignored the ban.

At the same time, the church’s Task Force for ELCA Studies on Sexuality called for no change in the denomination’s practice of permitting local congregations to decide whether to bless the unions of same-sex couples.

The Chicago Tribune linked the story to a local leader and stressed that the church had decided that progressive bishops were now free to do whatever they wished. The bottom line? The game continues.

Both gay rights advocates and Lutheran conservatives panned a long-awaited sexuality report released by the nation’s largest Lutheran denomination on Thursday, saying it showed no signs of progress in the discussion about same-sex unions and gay clergy. …

The report did not suggest lifting the celibacy rules imposed on gay clergy, a change that Chicago Bishop Paul Landahl had hoped to see. … The report did recommend allowing bishops such as Landahl to choose not to punish congregations that ordain non-celibate gays and lesbians, as long as those congregations had discussed it beforehand with local church leaders.

Now, that sounds like a win for the left to me — in blue Lutheran zip codes. However, the lead that I think captured the most interesting element of the story came from Godbeat veteran Julia Duin at the Washington Times. She declared a winner and noted another fascinating wrinkle. Check this out:

A Lutheran task force handed a victory to homosexual rights groups yesterday by recommending that although the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America should not change its policy against ordaining homosexual clergy, it should not censure churches that break the rule.

But “those who feel conscience-bound to call people [as pastors] in committed same-sex unions should refrain from making the call a media event either as an act of defiance or with the presumption of being prophetic,” the task force warned.

In other words, progressive Lutherans, you are not to call attention to yourselves. Do not speak clearly. Keep your head down and run out the clock. Above all, do not turn this into more headlines that will hurt the denomination’s finances or statistics. This raises a question for me: What does it mean when conservative newspapers say the left won and liberal newspapers say that no one was victorious? Just curious.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Joe
  • J A Scott

    What it means is that there’s an underlying disagreement about the nature of truth. A couple of days ago, the Pittsburgh, Pa. Tribune-Review (Dick Scaife’s paper, but I won’t hold that against the writer) carried a story about local Lutherans that included a telling quote from Walter Wink of Auburn Seminary in NYC:

    “I would urge them to agree to disagree. Anything beyond that will simply be domination of the majority.”

    The fact is that Wink doesn’t consider religious beliefs to be legitimate claims to knowledge. Nor does the New York Times. Thus in its coverage of the Lutheran dispute, which is an entirely religious one, the only judgment the NYT can make is in favor of ambiguity. The writer for the Washington Times understood the ambiguity itself to be a fairly dogmatic claim to knowledge, and pronounced accordingly.

  • Stephen A.

    It’s clear the Left is winning in that church. When the debate is all about them, they are the ones setting the agenda – and this is true in several denominations.

    Just curious – what THEOLOGICAL or religious message is that gay rainbow banner hanging from the church rafters is meant to convey? Or is it just a political and social statement of Gay Liberation? I’d like a liberal to answer that one, and if it’s political, why that doesn’t do damage to the separation of church and state.

    You may have dealt with the demise of the Mainline Churches before in this blog, but now may be a good time to look at some statistics (Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches):

    1998: Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (10,936 churches) 5,180,910 members.

    2004: (10,721 churches) 5,038,006 members.

    A two percent drop in churches over six years, and almost a three percent drop in members. Not bad, but not good, either, considering the growth rate in many other denominations.

    The Episcopal Church USA was at 2,536,550 members in 1998, but is now at 2,333,628, and has lost 71 churches.

    The Presbyterian Church USA also lost 231 churches and 320,000 members, net, over the same period.

    These losses are more steep when looking at figures from the mid-1980s to the present.

    The “bottom line” is that when a denomination decides to waste all their time and effort discussion homosexual sex, rather than how to best serve God, they become a dying denomination.

    This topic is about as relevant and productive as the one engaged in during the early middle ages – How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?

  • dw

    I was talking to an ELCA minister, and he noticed something that no one is picking up on: The statement, in effect, says that the Lutherans are to be congregational in matters of homosexuality.

    The Lutherans are turned more congregational, while the Southern Baptists are losing their congregationalism. Seems… odd to me.