Saturday, May 17, 2008

Metro NY Synod 2008: Chapter 1

Well, that was a big bust.  Not the Assembly, about which more presently; we mean our promise to blog daily from the hotel.  Turns out they charge you extra for an Internet connection.  Oh, and the Egg creative team turned out to be kinda busy assembling.

But rather than recount the weekend's joys in one epic post, we'll break them up a little.  If you read from the bottom of the page upward, you can re-create the suspense of the event.  If that's what floats your boat.

So.  First things first.  The single most important thing to come out of this assembly was the announcement on Thursday night that after five years, the ELCA's Metro NY Synod has actually achieved its goal, and created a million-dollar permanent endowment to support Christian education in the Tanzania.  We will drop our customary mask of world-weary cynicism, and recognize that this is a truly important achievement, which glorifies God and has the potential to spread the Gospel in transformative ways for years to come.  Everybody involved should be damned proud of themselves.

Now then.  Let's put that mask back on, shall we?  The announcement was part of a long presentation by the relevant committee, in which tokens of affection were exchanged, bishops shook hands, and dashikis played a prominent role.  It was quite jolly, but it was, we say again, rather long.  Suspiciously long.  Almost as if the agenda had been rigged somewhat in order to highlight the accomplishments of our former bishop, who had returned for the occasion, and of his assistant for stewardship, who had done major work on the project -- and who was also a candidate for the Big Hat.

The first ballot had already been cast by the time this happened, but in a process like this ("pure" ecclesiastical ballot), a lot depends on what comes later, and any number of observers have remarked on the abnormal attention given to one likely candidate early on the process.  

None of this is meant to disparage that candidate, a fine pastor whom we have known for many years, and whose ministry was an inspiration to us in our youth.  He's a sincere, soft-spoken, deeply humble guy whom we genuinely love and respect.  If we suspect a little favoritism, and we are not sure whether we do or not, he is in no way responsible.

That said, he was ahead when the results of the first ballot were announced, by a significant margin over his nearest competitor, another assistant.  And this returns us to Father A.'s favorite theme of late, the inadequacy of our process for choosing bishops.  Because the ecclesiastical ballot is cast with no preliminaries, a natural advantage goes to people whose profiles are already high -- and no profile is higher than an incumbent bishop's assistant.  They get a lot of votes, and our previous two bishops had served in that capacity before their election.  That was the case in this instance as well:  of the top 11 candidates after the first ballot, five either were or had been assistants to the former bishop.

If you have never enjoyed the fruits of a pure ecclesiastical ballot, gentle reader, let us share some of the wackiness with you:  that first vote produced 81 candidates.  Of these, the leader had 96 votes, the second-placer exactly half as many, and the lowest-ranking 29 candidates received precisely one vote each.  Presumably not their own.  (Father A., it should be pointed out, received not one solitary vote -- not from his members, his wife or his son.  Next time, he brings the family dog.)

The ranking of the top candidates, listed below, provoked some discussion.  Former or current bishop's assistants are in italics.  
  • Robert Wollenburg -- 96 votes
  • Gary Mills -- 48 votes
  • Robert Rimbo -- 29 votes
  • Jeffrey Kolbo -- 27 votes
  • William Baum -- 21 votes
  • Dianne Loufman -- 16 votes
  • Elise Brown -- 14 votes
  • Richard Hill -- 14 votes
  • Ann Tiemeyer -- 12 votes
  • Cherlyne Beck -- 10 votes
  • David Anglada -- 9 votes
Frankly, Wollenburg's early front runner status was a surprise to us at the Egg.  Once again, he's a fine pastor and has been a fine assistant.  But is he twice as fine as Gary Mills?  Of course not.  They are very similar in many respects:  white men in middle age, with experience as mission developers and, later, as administrators.  Wollenburg had been instrumental in funding the endowment, but Mills had been instrumental in creating the relationship with Tanzania.  So why the spread?  We were inclined to suspect that one faction of the voting body -- the conservatives -- had coalesced around Wollenburg.

Why?  Not because Bob is especially conservative on most issues, at least so far as we know.  But there is one subject, and only one, which has shown a repeated capacity to polarize and paralyze our synod assemblies, and which seems to color many of our relationships:  the gays, and what to do about 'em.  Both Mills and Rimbo are known to have pretty staunchly pro-gay positions, as do several of the other top candidates.  Wollenburg isn't known to have any position at all, at least publicly, and one can't help thinking that the ALPB crowd fastened on him as their only hope.

Yet again, for those who may not be getting it:  this isn't a reflection on Wollenburg, a good man of almost compulsively mild manners.  It is speculation about why other people made him the early front-runner. 

But here's another neat factoid about Lutheran elections.  The natural advantage of which we were speaking above is also known to fade in the course of several ballots.  Thursday evening at the bar, we heard several stories of elections in other synods in which the front-runner in early voting had been a popular assistant to the outgoing bishops, only to be defeated in the end.  As for the organized support of conservatives, we have seen it both help a candidate (Stephen Bouman) and hurt one (Roger Schleef).  So we did not know what to expect.

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