Wednesday, October 17, 2007

We Told Them So

In the early years of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, one of the big arguments concerned ecumenical relationships. A small but vocal high-church group objected to full-communion relations with the Reformed churches. A much larger and far more vocal group, which eventually coalesced into the WordAlone Network, objected to full communion with the Episcopal Church.

Ecumenism was what we fought bitterly about just before we began fighting bitterly about gay people. The agreement with the Episcopalians was savagely contested, failed once by a few votes, and passed two years later. Curiously enough, once the whole thing blew over, WordAlone had to justify its continued existence, and started picking on the gays. Although they are reluctant to say so, that's their current raison d'etre. But they started out by pissing on the Anglicans (and some of them don't see much difference).

Anyhoo, one of the elements of the ELCA's agreement with PECUSA was that our bishops, and not pastors delegated by bishops, would ordain new pastors. But after signing on the dotted line, we reneged, and as a sop to WordAlone have given bishops the freedom to delegate ministers of ordination in situations of "special need." The idea was that seminarians with a strong theological objection to the rule could seek an exemption.

At the time, we pointed out that there was some foolishness here. First off, it was a blatant abrogation of our commitment to the Episcopalians. (They felt betrayed, and who can blame them?) Secondly, the Lutheran Confessions express a strong preference for the traditional church structures of the Middle Ages, endorsing exceptions only when the old structures are corrupted and no longer permit the Gospel to be proclaimed purely (as was indeed the case in Reformation Germany). So, despite the variety of ordination practices that Lutherans have historically used, there is one to which we have an a priori commitment. And when a prospective pastor seeks an exception to that practice, the burden is upon that prospective pastor to demonstrate that the usual practice would somehow restrain the Gospel.

In other words, you have to write a letter to your bishop saying "You are a heretic." And your bishop has to be sufficiently swayed by your logic as to permit an exception to the rule for the sake of the Gospel. That's our interpretation, anyway.

Needless to say, few such letters have been written. And yet, mirabile dictu, "special need" exemptions have been granted quite freely in some parts of the ELCA. How so?

Outgoing ELCA Secretary Lowell Almen shed some light on the matter earlier this month, with his valedictory presentation to the Confernce of Bishops. As reported, well after the fact, in an official press release, "Almen expressed concern about how a bylaw that provided for 'ordination in unusual circumstances' has been practiced, arguing that neither the bylaw requirements nor the related policy 'are being observed conscientiously.' He was especially critical of last-minute requests for exceptions after ordinations had been scheduled, saying 'that the whistle needs to be sounded loudly on that game of last-minute requests and written statements that do not meet the criteria listed in the policy.' "

Hmm. So apparently, there has been a loose (we really can't call it liberal) interpretation of the bylaw, according to which prospective pastors feel free to ask for exceptions to the church's ordination practice, and bishops feel free to grant it, pretty much for whatever reason they want. Almen's objection is that ordination is a "rite" belonging to the whole church -- meaning, we have decided upon certain forms by which it is to be done -- and not a "right" belonging to the individual bishops. A bit tortured and susceptible to misapprehension, but still well enough said to be worth remembering.

And our point? We told them so. When the ELCA bishops caved under pressure from WordAlone and the other pietistic whiners, we said that the new policy was a betrayal of both our ecumenical commitments and of our church's confession of faith. We also said that it set the bar for "unusual circumstances" very high, and that we doubted the bishops would have the intestinal fortitude to keep it there. After all, they want to be re-elected, and that is much easier when you appease your special interests.

Apparently, we were right. And Lowell Almen, virtually the only ranking official to have held his office throughout the ELCA's history, just told the bishops that they had become spineless wretches. Like a faithful church diplomat, he did it carefully, judiciously, so gently that the dimmer ones may not quite have heard what he was saying. But he said it.

We salute you, sir.

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