Monday, February 12, 2007

"...Full of Grace?"

Bradley Schmeling has lost his case. For those who don't know, Schmeling is the pastor of a Lutheran congregation in Atlanta. Some months ago, he informed his bishop, Ronald B. Warren, that he was in a committed relationship with another man. The bishop asked him to resign both from his call and from pastoral ministry; Schmeling refused, and his congregation stood beside him. Because ELCA bishops don't have the canonical authority to remove pastors, the case was referred to a disciplinary committee of the national church.

The committee's decision reveals a lot about where the ELCA is these days. They found that Schmeling had indeed violated the standards prescribed by the church for its ordained leaders, and accordingly instructed that he be removed from the clergy roster. (For those unfamiliar with the ELCA's tepidly corporate lingo, that means defrocked.)

But the committee also found that, if the rules in question were not in place, they would with near-unanimity endorse Pastor Schmeling's ministry. Bishop Warren said much the same thing, but the committee went a step further and recommended that the denomination change its protocols, to permit permanently partnered gay people to serve as pastors.

(Pr. A's opinion is that the ELCA will not change the protocols at its churchwide assembly this summer. The arguments over sexuality have been so divisive, and the stalemate of the past few years has been achieved with such difficulty, that few voting members will likely want to rock the boat.)

It appears, then, that we have an instance in which none of the interested parties -- pastor, congregation, bishop or discipline committee -- thinks that Schmeling is doing a bad job. On the contrary, they seem to think he is doing a very good job, providing the pastoral are that his community needs with scandalizing or giving offense to the faithful. But they are duty-bound to respect rules which conflict with their own observations, as well as their own convictions. And although they have recommended a change in the rules, it is unlikely -- although not impossible! -- that their recommendation will be followed.

This means, to put it simply, that the church is enforcing rules in which a great many of its leaders do not believe. This curious situation, in which unity and the comfort of the rear-guard are valued over one's own convictions, probably occurs often when slow-moving institutions are in the midst of change. It is a position doubtless famiiar to many Roman Catholic priests just before Vatican II -- or on the eve of the Reformation.

It is understandable, and even pitiable. But let's be fair: it's also hypocritical.

And to make it all more piquant, the date upon which Pastor Scmieling will again be simply Mister Schmeling, at least in eyes of his denomination, is August 15th. For Lutherans, that is the Commemoration of the Blessed Virgin Mary. As in "Hail Mary, full of grace," the angel's greeting. It will be a strange occasion upon which to mark the victory of rules over reasons, or of law over grace.

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