Friday, February 27, 2009

South Dakota Bishop Quotes St. Paul Area Bishop

South Dakota Synod Bishop David Zellmer's comments on the South Dakota Synod News Blog are largely a quote from a e-letter from St. Paul Area Synod Bishop Peter Rogness.

Some Thoughts on Recent ELCA Documents

Dear Rostered Leaders,

The ELCA bishops have been sharing with one another letters and e-mails they have sent to their rostered leaders regarding the two documents released this week by the Task Force for ELCA Studies on Sexuality, Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust and Report and Recommendation on Ministry Policies. I found a letter from Bishop Peter Rogness, St. Paul Area Synod, to be logical and clear in its history and review of the statement and proposal, and with his permission am attaching an excerpt from it. I encourage you to read both the Sexuality Statement and the proposal, and I believe you will find Bishop Rogness's letter to be helpful in framing the process, discussion, and questions that are before us.

In Christ's Service,

Bishop David B. Zellmer
Testing the Water: Can we move beyond the two poles
to be church together?

Excerpted with permission from an e-letter by Bishop Peter Rogness, St. Paul Area Synod, ELCA, 2/19/09

The process
Our church is participatory in how it makes decisions about our life together. This process was set in motion by action of a Churchwide Assembly in 2001, with additional mandate given in 2007. A diverse task force was formed to give its best effort --in listening, understanding, and recommending. These documents represent a monumental effort, and, I believe, a fine work product. Whether you agree or disagree with their substance, the effort deserves our thanks and our study.

These documents now belong to the church. The Conference of Bishops will discuss them in early March (we're a non-legislative body and as such, are unable to make any changes to the documents). The church council will receive them and transmit them with proposed actions to the 2009 Churchwide Assembly in Minneapolis, August 17-23. In the meantime forums … and synod assemblies … will discuss and, in all likelihood, pass on memorials to the Churchwide Assembly. Then the 1,050 voting members of the assembly will make their decision on behalf of the whole church.

So the first thing to help your people understand is that this is in process, and this process is designed to bring the church's full participation into the final decision. This isn't something they are doing. The they is us, and it's a very broad "us."

The proposed social statement
It's unfortunate that this fine social statement--Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust--will get lost in the public rush to talk about the policy recommendations. Sexuality is a powerful dimension of our lives and badly misunderstood in this culture. We would do well to think long and hard about how to receive it as the gift it is, with the potential to ennoble rather than damage life.

The statement begins by placing matters of sexuality within the two greatest commandments: love of God and love of neighbor. If human sexuality is to be an expression of human love, it ought to mirror God's faithfulness and trustworthiness. Trust in relationships becomes a key theme throughout, and marriage and family are the vehicles God gives us for building trust in relationships.

I hope you use this statement in discussion groups. Because of responses from people throughout the church to last year's first draft, the social statement is substantially shorter and reflects greater clarity in certain portions. The Churchwide Assembly will consider not only the substance of the statement itself, but the 15 implementing resolutions (pages 32-33) that encourage further consideration and action flowing from this statement.

The report and recommendations on ministry standards
I hope we can reframe the conversation about ministry standards from the way it has been traditionally framed and the way the media will surely frame it. Framing the question in the typical way describes two competing poles, which can be summarized this way:

Argument for retaining the present policy (i.e., gay and lesbian clergy must be celibate): "This is fundamentally a matter of fidelity to Scripture. The Bible in several places is clear that homosexuality is sinful, contrary to God's creative design. Those in public leadership ought not be in a relationship the Bible clearly states is sinful. Just because the culture has moved away from this biblical truth is no reason for us to do so."

Argument for changing policy, allowing gay and lesbian clergy in committed relationships to be rostered ministers: "This is fundamentally a matter of justice. The Bible passages cited are not directed to persons whom we now understand to have a same-gender orientation. We now know this is part of who these people are, and we have come to see that there are wonderful gifts for ministry that this church should allow to be claimed."

The task force recognizes again, as it did in 2005, that this is a church with no consensus on these fundamental issues. That might mean--if we are drawn into the polarization of this matter--that we now launch into a tug-of-war to see who wins.

But the task force suggests another way. My first reaction is twofold: I think it borders on brilliant, and I think it's deeply Lutheran.

Lutherans have always held to the importance of conscience--based in relationship with God, grounded in Scripture, guided by our theological heritage (see lines 384 ff for references beginning with Luther himself). But the task force turns our more typical use of "conscience" on its head and gives it back to us to deal with. Typically one asserts "conscience" as a trump card. For example, "If my conscience tells me so-and-so, I get my way; you can't make me go against my conscience." But the task force calls us to receive each others' conscience as similarly binding and then challenges us to find a way to be church together, giving honor to the bound conscience of those whose convictions lead them to differing conclusions than our own. The tug of war is ended, in this approach. Rather, we are called to find a way that grants integrity and respect to differing, faithful, conscience-bound positions.

I think we're being challenged to find a way to be church together. We don't have to have one side lose so the other can win. But both sides--all sides--need to decide if we can respect the other sufficiently so as to allow them to shape the life of the church in their place in that way that they believe God is leading.

So what does this mean?
So how does all this work? What specifically would it mean? Rather than propose constitutional changes (as was proposed and defeated in 2005), the task force recommends letting those structures that already make judgments about suitability for ministry continue to do so. These structures include synod candidacy committees, seminary faculties, bishops, congregational councils, and call committees. All of these entities now guide the church's decisions and would continue to do so.

If this church decides to allow for these processes to consider a gay or lesbian person in a committed relationship as the person whose gifts for ministry seem well-suited for a particular setting, then we would put in place "structured flexibility" to guide such decisions. The blanket preclusions to their ministry would be eliminated. But also, consistent with respect for bound conscience, those places in the church that do not believe in such suitability would also be respected.

The task force lays these matters before the church in a logical four-step progression, and my previous paragraph describing how the process would work is step four. Since we place great importance on accountability to ministry standards, the church would first have to decide whether it was willing to allow congregations and synods that choose to do so to "find ways" to recognize lifelong, committed, monogamous, same-gender relationships. In other words, the same rigorous standard for conduct that we hold for heterosexual clergy in marriage would need to find parallel for same-gender couples. The question is this: Driven by respect for the conscience-bound convictions of some, is this church willing to allow those persons and congregations to be led in that direction, even if others are led in another direction?

"For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us...."
In the 15th chapter of Acts, when a deeply divided early church came together to consider how to proceed as the gospel moved beyond the Jewish world to be embraced by Jew and Gentile alike, the apostles and the elders announced their decision: "For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us..." (Acts 15:28) In the Smalcald Articles Luther spoke in almost sacramental terms of "the mutual conversation and consolation of the saints." The task force has put squarely before us the question of how seriously we can take the "us" in the apostles' words.
More information and resources may be found at Human Sexuality on the ELCA website.

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