Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Synod Councils Now Playing Hardball

For several years, Father Anonymous had the distinct displeasure of watching pastors accused of sexual misconduct (and, indeed, convicted under the church's disciplinary policy) leave the ELCA to join micro-denominations, taking their parishes with them. He also watched pastors who simply didn't like the synod anymore do likewise -- with no regard for how much the church they were leaving might have invested in their education or their parishes. Time and again, both bishop and synod council stood by and said, not just in effect but sometimes verbatim, "We want to be your friends. Come back when you need us." Regular readers probably have a sense of how much this experience rankled the poor little blogger.

Apparently, that is beginning to change.

Per the ELCA's news service, a Florida congregation (St. Peter, Fort Pierce) has taken the two votes canonically required for former LCA parishes to leave the ELCA. However, there is another requirement as well: synodical approval.

And the Florida-Bahamas Synod Council just said no.

The article is a bit oblique, so it's hard to tell just what was going on. "Missional reasons" are cited, since apparently there is no other ELCA parish in the area, and the council didn't want to lose its presence in the area. The church's pastor, Theodore Rice, raises the logical question of how the synod hopes to work effectively with a parish that clearly doesn't want to participate.

But -- and again, regular readers will have guessed our sentiments on this matter -- we barely care. Oh, make no mistake: we care, in the sense that we urgently want to hear about a reconsideration and a reconciliation, about hearts softening as the members of St. Peter realize that they can continue in fellowship even despite a deep theological disagreement.

What we don't care about is whether, absent such reconciliation, the pastor and members of St. Peter like it it. If they don't like their mother church, they can leave -- individually. They can join a Missouri congregation. They can start a new congregation. They can do anything they want except steal a congregation.

And yes, we understand that they don't think they're stealing; they have contributed immense amounts of time, treasure and talent to St. Peter, and feel like it is their own possession. But they are mistaken. It belongs to Christ, whose lordship of the church is made real not just in transitory assemblies (as some Lutherans have been known to say) or in individual parishes (as others have often held) but through the larger body.

The story goes on to mention parallel decisions by the synod council upon which we once sat for a few months, keeping a friend's seat warm:

The ELCA Metropolitan New York Synod Council has acted on three requests from congregations to terminate their relationships with the synod and the ELCA, but its approach was different. The congregations are Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, New Rochelle; Advent Lutheran Church, Elmont; and St. James Lutheran Church, Stewart Manor. In each case, the synod council adopted a resolution "respectfully" requesting each to "remain in the fellowship of the Metropolitan New York Synod," according to the synod's records.

We aren't quite sure how this is different, apart from being a bit more polite. It depends upon whether a "respectful request" really means yes or no. In the former case, it is meaningless; in the latter, it might have been phrased a bit better.

This is all very difficult and painful. We wish it weren't happening. But if it is, we warmly applaud councils (and their bishops) for showing some spine. The bad news is that it will lead, inevitably, to painful and embarrassing lawsuits. We desperately wish that were not so. But the good news is that it takes a stand against the ultra-congregationalism and individualism which run rampant in American Christianity. Against "cafeteria Lutheranism," if you like.


Diane said...

I always learn a lot from you. I didn't know that congregations were leaving when the pastor was accused of misconduct, sometimes. wow.

lately, though, I'm tired.

Father said...

Let me backpedal a little bit here. There were two high-profile cases in our synod, a few years back. Both were instances of adultery committed with somebody to whom the cleric had a pastoral responsibility.

In one instance, the guy admitted everything, but argued that the disciplinary process was many years after the fact, and unduly harsh. He may have had a case, depending upon your perspective.

In the other instance, the guy just denied everything -- apparently convincing himself that since he and his co-respondent intended to divorce their spouses and marry each other, it was somehow okay in God's eyes. This guy clearly needs (a) to review Moral Theology 101; (b) to be defrocked; (c) to suffer the eternal enmity of the family he destroyed.

In both cases, the congregation "stood by its pastor," in my opinion somewhat foolishly, and elected to leave the ELCA. And our synod let it happen, which has always seemed to me like bad pastoral care.

But -- here's the key point -- I *don't* mean to suggest that escaping church disciplinary processes is a primary driver of the micro-denominations, especially now. But it has been a contributing factor, over the years. I have absolutely no numerical information with which to assess the frequency, however.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the seat back. Here's what I wrote "Resolved, because the Metropolitan New York Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America values the Christ centered ministry of Advent Lutheran Church, Elmont, NY, and believes the congregation's contribution to the life and witness of our synod is richly beneficial to the koinonia of our synod's congregations, for the sake of our shared and interdependent witness to the saving Gospel of Jesus Christ, we respectfully request Advent Lutheran Church remain in the fellowship of the MNYS-ELCA." It means "No." Could have been worded more artfully, but it was the best I could come up with on the fly at a meeting where it was looking like the answer was shifting from "maybe" to "yes." web

Father said...

I think it's marvelous.

Pastor Joelle said...

We've had a few misconduct pastors lead their churches out of the ELCA. My favorite is the guy who was giving massages to nude female parishioners in the parsonage. Oh it was okay because he had a lisence. He and the congregation were oh so offended when the Bishop told him he couldn't do that. Because after all, he had a license! I think they belong to LCMC now. No bishop to tell him he can't do that now!

Father said...

I'd say "unbelievable," but, well, it's all too easy to believe.

Anonymous said...

Didn't the Reformation get a big boost when Henry VIII and the monarchs of Scandinavia basically take all of their churches away from the pope-without getting his permission?
Isn't that how Protestantism is supposed to work?
I'm a Protestant, so I was a little curious.

Father said...

Actually, the question of how much control civil authority should exercise over the regional churches had been hotly debated throughout the Middle Ages. Princes generally felt that the church in a region was their responsibility, and the claims of the Papacy were an effort to steal it from them.

Perhaps the distinguishing characteristic here is legal. Renaissance princes, to all intents and purposes, *were* the law; they bent it to their own will with scant regard for its letter. Henry VIII is among the most notorious of these, and his (mis)treatment of the church in England makes for astonishing reading, centuries later.

It remains an open question among historians whether Henry was acting in the (apparent) best interests of the church, or simply trying to steal vast amounts of church property for the crown. I don't mean to be snarky, but if when you talk about how "Protestantism is supposed to work," you mean stealing property, then I suppose you've got the historical analogy right.

But, really, a comparison of the Reformation to contemporary church struggles is a bit weak, since the role of government here is not to be a principal actor, but rather a neutral arbiter between the church organizations and the parishes.