Saturday, May 23, 2009

Shreck: Don't Act Unilaterally

Shrimp here. From 1998-2008 Pastor Paul Schreck served in the ELCA's Office of the Secretary and also in the ELCA ecumenical affairs department, working closely with ELCA Secretary Lowell Almen and in the Lutheran-Roman Catholic dialogues. He has been without a call since last August. In the just-out June 2009 issue of The Lutheran magazine, Pastor Schreck addresses recommendations on ministry policies being presented at the ELCA Churchwide Assembly in August.

Fragile relationships

Handle ecumenism with care

Recently I shredded an envelope only to discover the contents were still inside. The damage was irreparable. Precious things can be destroyed in a moment.

What of the church? Can this precious body of Christ be similarly broken? The church has experienced many divisions through the centuries. The bitter pain of this brokenness threatens to undermine its ability to proclaim the gospel. Yet to many, a divided church appears to be normal rather than contrary to God's will — and brings no pain.

Some steps in recent decades have restored a high degree of trust and affection between Christians of various traditions. ELCA pastors regularly preside at the eucharist in many of these traditions. ELCA members participate with Roman Catholics in joint Bible studies. Christians set aside divisions to care for the stranger in need through disaster response. But our steps toward church unity are tenuous and can be quickly undone.

The ELCA meets in assembly in August. One decision concerns whether gay and lesbian people in committed same-sex relationships may serve this church as pastors. Two opposing views have been widely discussed. Astonishingly absent from the discussion is the point that the ELCA doesn't make this decision in a vacuum. We live in interdependent relationships with Lutherans and Christians around the world. Assembly decisions affect those.

A change in ELCA discipline for pastors will scandalize some partner churches and likely lead to suspension of full-communion agreements. Relationships with the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches will cool considerably. Our Lutheran World Federation membership may be jeopardized because the fastest-growing Lutheran churches passionately oppose this change. Exact reactions are impossible to predict, but they will have concrete implications.

Whether this change is applied to the entire ELCA roster or decisions are made locally by synods, the overwhelming majority of the world's Christians will see any change in the discipline for pastors as our breaking communion with them. The criticism would be accurate: The decision will have been made unilaterally. Voting members need to be aware of these implications. There may be appropriate times to break communion with other Christians. But we must be fully aware we are doing it. Dividing the church comes at a price. We must never pretend it's not painful.
The Lutheran promises "another view on the sexuality documents" in its July issue. Shrimp out...

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