This was a difficult decision, painful for many on either side of the question. A friend who supported the ELCA's decision strongly, and who was present at the assembly, circulated notes which said, in part:
This is worth remembering.
But here's another thing worth remembering: this change in the church's policy may seem greater than it is. You could argue, as we often have, that the church's practice will change little, and for the better. After all, we have always ordained gay people. We have also ordained straight people who are not married. And while in both cases we did ask them to live in celibacy, it is surely no secret that, over the years, many have neglected to do so.
(Incidentally, the same expectations apply to laypeople, and always have. Nobody ever talks about this, because it has been a long time since the ELCA or any of its predecessor churches was minded to censure laypeople for these things.)
Anyway, the fact of this neglect doesn't make it right, to be sure; we pastors often neglect to do tother things the church expressly expects of us -- remain sober, refrain from gluttony or wrath, remain married for life, even find time for recreation and self-care. These are grave things. But it is worth remembering that effective and holy ministry has been conducted by people who have not lived up to the church's expectations.
Here's what has happened, though, over the years. The church has been torn between two impulses, each of them praiseworthy: to accept people as they are, without judgment; and to maintain its traditional rules of behavior. Historians sometimes call them the tendencies toward laxism and rirorism. Now, those aren't easy impulses to balance, and never have been. In some apostolic communities, soldiers and judges were excluded from church membership; until quite recently -- some of our own lifetimes -- a divorced pastor was certain to lose his call and likely to be defrocked.
(Reading the canons of the various ecumenical councils is a fascinating experience, if one stops looking at Christology and starts looking only at the repeated calls for "reform" of morals in general and clerical morals in particular. It is as though nobody ever lived quite the way they were called to. But of course, the details of "the way they were called to" have changed significantly through the years.)
Among Lutherans (even the LC-MS, if imperceptibly), the balance has gradually shifted toward acceptance without judgment at the expense of rules. But many Christian communities have decisively chosen the alternative path, declaring any number of behaviors immoral and therefore unacceptable among the faithful. There are, of course, Bible-based arguments which exclude not only divorce but also tattoos, church organs, women who don't wear hats, and lots of other things that many of us -- but not all -- find unexceptionable.
Rigorism is a very attractive public posture for a church. People really do love rules, and they want their church to have and display the highest ethical standard. This is a great and proven way to attract new recruits, many of whom will hold themselves to this high standard, at least until they don't anymore. And even then, they'll keep up appearances.
Here's what rigorism does: it creates a culture of hypocrisy. There are dozens of easy examples. (As a former Baptist we know likes to remark, the difference between a liberal Baptist and a conservative Baptist is that the liberal will make eye contact when you meet at the liquor store.) But the example of gay Lutheran pastors is worth noting. For generations, their church has said one thing and done another, often in ways that are astonishingly overt.
- In the 1930s and 40s, our synod elected -- repeatedly -- a bishop who had lived with another man since about 1900. This fellow was identified in the press as the bishop's "friend" and even "physician," but this was just euphemism. They lived together, with one interruption, for their entire adult lives. It was about as public as such a relationship could have been, but there is no evidence that anybody ever ... said anything about it.
- Many, many leaders of the catholic-revival movement have been what an old ELCA document called "homosexual in their self-understanding," whether or not they remained celibate. (Some surely did, others certainly did not). One thinks of Newman, his bones intermixed with those of Fr. Ambrose St. John; or one thinks of the homophobic slur implicit in the snarky expression "chancel prancer." Come on: Did you really think that, beneath the liturgical and ecclesiastical battles of the last 175 years, there wasn't an element of gay-versus-antigay jousting? Of course there was.
Now, this was barely hypocrisy. It was more like a sort of truce, between the rigorist and laxist positions, not quite "don't ask, don't tell," but one in which other matters were sometimes used as substitutes for a frank discussion of sexual behavior and its moral consequences. We suspect that many people in many churches wish that the clock could be turned back, and this truce could be restored.
But it can't, and here's why. The public discourse regarding sexuality has changed dramatically over the past half-century. Divorce no longer requires "residency" at a Nevada dude ranch; cohabitation scandalizes barely anybody; and we all know that Spencer Tracy was married, but not to Katherine Hepburn. We are more frank now, often to an embarrassing degree. (And let's be clear: this is excess frankness is not an unalloyed joy for anybody).
What this means in parish practice is that, for example, a pastor who lived for thirty years with the same man, traveling together from one rectory to another, would have a much more difficult time passing that fellow off as his physician. People would simply assume, and act accordingly -- giving the couple a choice between admission (even if tacit) and deceit.
Indeed, the very possibility of celibacy seems not to enter the minds of the faithful any longer. Some years ago, when an unmarried colleague moved in with her fiance, a parishioner disclosed his very understandable difficulty with this obvious pastoral misstep. But when we suggested that perhaps they were managing to cohabit chastely, said parishioner could not even consider the possibility. Or consider a gay pastor, whom we know to have been celibate, and who was discovered by a church member, browsing in the wrong aisle of a local porn shop. (Another obvious misstep, but pity the poor guy, who was really struggling to maintain his celibacy). Within days, the pastor was on his way to joblessness.
In a society like ours, there really isn't much of a closet left to hide in.
So this is where the hypocrisy comes in. For example: A gay colleague recently sent us a clipping from his hometown newspaper, including an interview with his hometown pastor, a friend and mentor. Our friend has been "out" to his old pastor for decades, but has nonetheless been welcome in the parish, even preaching and presiding when he's in town. In the article, the hometown pastor is quoted, often, decrying the ELCA's new position in florid terms, which he swears is a church-dividing anathema to his congregation. But if you look closely at the accompanying photograph, of a beautiful church in the midst of worship, there is a gay man holding the Eucharistic bread over the altar.
This is the sort of thing that has become common in recent years, and which we consider a sort of well-intentioned but ultimately soul-destroying hypocrisy. A rigorist theory joined to a laxist practice seems sort of charming, doesn't it? But in fact, it undermines both. The hometown pastor has knowingly invited to preside at his parish table someone he believes ought to be subject to ecclesiastical discipline; surely this is (by his own lights) an abuse of his parishioners, if not an insult to God. Meanwhile, his public comments on the subject are hurtful to the colleague who has loved him and trusted in his goodwill. In his effort to be personally kind and doctrinally faithful, he has fallen into an ethical trap, which threatens his integrity on every side.
The ELCA has not, despite its critics, broken faith with a long and well-reasoned tradition of Christian moral theology. At least not this month. It has taken steps to make its canons accord with its practice, so that people can speak frankly about their own lives and loves. It has obviated the old and tiresome game of pretending not to know what one does know, of deceiving oneself and others -- or of pretending to be deceived when one really isn't. In that sense, the questions that have been decided, at least ad interim, are less about sexual ethics than about the ethics of truth and lies.