Thursday, April 02, 2009

Just Say "No" to the Naysayers

Pastor Joelle writes:

I'm really tired of the ELCA bashing. Someone recently said on a public forum that he was embarrassed to be a member of the ELCA. That really pissed me off. I wanted to ask why he doesn't leave. Why doesn't he leave? Because there's no where else to go. He's not going to swim the Tiber. Missouri won't have him because he supports women in ministry and doesn't believe the world was created in seven 24 hour days. So he's stuck with us. And instead of being grateful there is a church that puts up with his constant public whining and put downs, he constantly bashes the ELCA in the name of wanting to reform it. ...

We're right there with you, sister. And then she makes an even more important point:

It's not that I'm uncritical of everything the ELCA does. I have some critiques. But I am reluctant nowadays to be open about them because they will be jumped on: "AH HA! See -- even you agree ...."

Click up top for her whole post, with which we concur wholeheartedly. And this raises a difficult question:  how to properly criticize your own church when you are surrounded by people whose criticisms are so fervently improper?

Most church bodies have to deal with a hypercritical fringe -- Presbyterian Layman, anybody? Virtue Online?  In the case of Lutheranism, bitter infighting has especially deep roots.  From Luther vs. the Zwickau Prophets and Melanchthon vs. the Gnesio-Lutherans, through the confessional argument that divided Schmucker Sr. from Schmucker Jr., Lutheran history is full of sharp elbows.  Herman Otten in his day and the WordAlone people in ours are simply more of the same.  (Click the links for our none-too-subtle editorial commentary upon each).

Once infighting reaches a certain point, it typically results in schism:  the General Synod begets the General Council; the NY Ministerium begets the Synod of New York.  Honestly, this may be an effective short-term pain reliever.  

A few years back, outraged that our synod assembly dared to question a ruling from the Conference of Bishops with which he happened to agree, Father Haddock  stood at a microphone and bellowed that "the Church has spoken, and if you don't like it, you can just leave."  And if the tide turns against him, we fully expect that Fr. H. will take his own advice.  It will make us sad, on the grounds of "if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less."  But -- let's be honest -- it will also make those assemblies less painful. 

And the good news is that, among Lutherans at least, these schisms are often temporary.  The Council and the Synod rejoined; the Ministerium and the Synod merged.  The now-somewhat-exhausted arc of history is long, but it tends toward unity.  (Missouri is the main exception.  It was born in schism, and often seems to exist principally for the purpose of decrying the rest of world Lutheranism, with which it will negotiate but never sign a treaty).

But if we do want to live together, how shall we talk to each other?  And how, especially, can those of us who are actually loyal to the church in which we were raised express our criticisms without seeming to join a chorus of those poised to make their escape?

We're open to suggestions.


Pastor Joelle said...

and here I thought you were going to answer the question on how to properly criticize one's church...

Father said...

Sadly -- and this is a significant personal failure -- I am better at recognizing a problem than providing a solution. (Although in this case, you actually put your finger on the problem, not I).

Words like "gently," "lovingly" and "charitably" seem like cliches in this instance, even bearing in mind the 8th Commandment.

What I have in mind is something like this: To criticize with the clear and overt understanding that, if our criticism does not resonate with the whole community, we will continue to live as part of the community.

It seems to me that this is an answer to all the people whose criticisms seem to mask a veiled threat to create a schism. They are saying, in essence, "My way or the highway." And even if they don't act on it --for better or worse -- the very fact of making the threat raises the emotional and rhetorical ante. It changes a "What shall we do" argument into a "do or die" one.

Oddly, it weakens their hand in negotiations. Why negotiate to appease somebody who is going to quit the team anyway? (Which is, incidentally, why I long ago ceased to favor including Missouri in any of our bilateral ecumenical dialogues.)