Sex and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

Sex and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America August 15, 2013

The largest Lutheran group in the United States is the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. I’m part of the next largest group, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. We really don’t have much in common, oddly enough. The ELCA just elected their first female presiding bishop. We retain male-only ordination. We have major differences in confessional subscription and requirements for our clergy and congregational membership. So for non-ELCA Lutherans, we flinch when we see headlines such as this one from the Minneapolis Star-Tribune:

Lutherans elect first female presiding bishop

The story makes clear that it refers only to the ELCA, but the general refrain about “Lutherans” causes all sorts of frustration. I was not surprised to see that the first comment to the piece was:

Could you please correct your headline not all Lutherans, it should either be the ELCA or the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. Not all Lutherans or the same sect.

Many reporters have been asking me for my thoughts or help on the background of what this convention all means but I’m as much in the dark as they. Confessional Lutherans in the LCMS are probably more interested in the goings on among Catholics than any mainline Protestant group. So with that apology for not being more up-to-speed on the ELCA, let’s look some of the coverage. First up from the AP News in brief over at the Washington Post:

PITTSBURGH — A Roman Catholic bishop has told the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America that differences over homosexuality matter less than the Christian faith that unites them.

Bishop Denis Madden told the ELCA’s Churchwide Assembly in Pittsburgh that Catholics and Lutherans may interpret the Bible differently, but shouldn’t let that drive them apart.

The nation’s largest Lutheran denomination welcomes partnered gay and lesbian clergy and recently elected its first partnered gay bishop.

But Madden said as the 500th anniversary of the Reformation approaches in 2017, Catholics and Lutherans should remain in respectful dialogue, “even when the course ahead presents itself as more rocky than we first imagined.”

Wait, what? Bishop Madden specifically said differences over homosexuality matter less than the Christian faith that unites them? Really? Of the many differences between Roman Catholic and ELCA Lutheran teaching, he picked out homosexuality as the no-big-deal example? And of the many differences in how each group develops doctrine, he picked out “Bible interpretation” as the one to point out? I am really curious what the exact quote is, aren’t you?  Perhaps to be careful, even in a news brief, statements such as this should have quotes around them.

When I hear “Pittsburgh” and “convention” in a religion news story, I want to go to Ann Rodgers. She’s providing updates and I’ve found them most helpful. Her note in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette about Bishop Madden was:

The warmest reception given to any bishop — a sustained standing ovation — was for a Catholic, auxiliary Bishop Denis Madden of Baltimore, who brought ecumenical greetings. He spoke of the upcoming 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation that Martin Luther launched in 1517.

He proposed that Lutherans and Catholics mark it together “as a celebration of our dialogue, even with our differences” and a demonstration of “our mutual respect, our love for each other.”

And Rodgers nails the “so what?” in this election with a separate must-read piece on the new bishop. She explains that Hanson was expected to win re-election, she includes quotes from Presiding Bishop-elect Elizabeth Eaton that reflect her humor, style and theological stances. And she positions the debate within the larger context of mainline Protestantism and Lutheranism. A few snippets:

Bishop Eaton, 58, is considered a centrist, while other finalists were viewed as more theologically liberal. During a brief address before the third ballot, she was the only one of four remaining nominees to directly address concerns of theological conservatives who had remained in the denomination…

She stressed the importance of maintaining Lutheran theological distinctives while reaching beyond a Nordic ethnic base. She also spoke of having a spiritual director to deepen her life of prayer and discernment of God’s guidance…

The Episcopal Church also has a female presiding bishop — Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, elected in 2006 — but that denomination is half the size of the ELCA. The second-largest Lutheran body in the United States, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, doesn’t ordain women. The first female bishop in the ELCA — and the second in the world — was Bishop April Larson, elected in 1992.



Very helpful. And good work from one Sarah Pulliam Bailey at Religion News Service on getting the news and context out there as well.

A reader pointed out the second paragraph of this Chicago Tribune report on the election:

Northeast Ohio Bishop Elizabeth Eaton defeated Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson, who has been at the helm since 2001, overseeing the denomination’s tense struggle with issues of human sexuality.

A few thoughts … it’s almost comforting to see the consistency in how journalists focus on sex and religion. Or as the reader put it, “Is that all he’s been doing? It’s just another illustration of the media’s obsession with sex, esp. homosexuality.” Indeed. The devotion to that topic is staggering. (And it’s not like there aren’t many other issues that have been contentious — most of the ex-ELCA Lutherans I know left over sanctity of life issues or general confessional issues.)

But the denomination’s “struggle” with issues of human sexuality has been the big news in recent years. So I was somewhat shocked that the rest of the piece didn’t mention the loss of — no joke — half a million members in the last couple of years and hundreds upon hundreds of congregations. The ELCA’s decline need not be the focus of any story, but this is noteworthy apart from general decline in Christianity and denominational allegiance. The story notes that no bishop left when the doctrine was changed, which makes the lack of mention about the loss of so many members and congregations even more odd.

Over at the American Lutheran Publicity Bureau (sort of a pan-Lutheran discussion site with forums on various topics), administrator Richard Johnson wrote up his notes from a press call with the presiding bishop-elect. It’s kind of interesting to see what reporters asked. To wit:

Ann Rogers Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: During your remarks you stated important to include voice of those who had difficulty with 2009 decisions. How do you propose going about this?

Via phone, from Chicago Tribune: I covered the papal election. There was a “room of tears” at the Vatican for prayer and processing. Anything like that?

Do let us know if you see any good or bad stories elsewhere.

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5 responses to “Sex and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America”

  1. I long ago gave up hope that reports would stop referring to the ELCA simply as Lutherans. But then how much of it is ELCA’s own publicity and reporters only passing on what is given to them?

  2. If it’s any consolation, this sort of thing cuts both ways. Just look at the NY Times headlines for “Lutheran.”

    “Lutherans” look like a quite a schizophrenic group on that list of articles!

    I’m happy as long as the article makes the denomination distinction early on. The acronyms aren’t punchy for headlines, and the denominational names are too long.

  3. Having followed Mollie’s frustration (and having more sympathy for LCMS than ELCA), I still think the complaint is overblown. From a headline standpoint you’re not going to say “Lutheran Sect” or “Some Lutherans”. If it says ELCA in paragraph 1 and “The nation’s largest Lutheran denomination” in paragraph 3, that’s about all your could realistically expect.

  4. “Confessional Lutherans in the LCMS are probably more interested in the
    goings on among Catholics than any mainline Protestant group.” That says a lot. That attitude of uncaring about other Christians has come across in some LCMS blogs I’ve read as well as my admittedly limited interactions with LCMS pastors.

  5. I have the same frustration when I see “Lutheran pastor apologized for praying at Newtown vigil” or “Lutheran church and school wins discrimination case” (specifically the Hosanna-Tabor Lutheran US Supreme Court case) that neither had to be ELCA Lutherans. In fact, both instances were that of the LCMS.

    Suffice it to say that I don’t expect the media to understand fully the nuances between our two respective denominations.