Saturday, February 18, 2012

Keeping the Tent Big

Holidays -- Christmas, Thanksgiving, that sort of thing -- are always hard in broken families. We've never had to deal with this, but we imagine it is pretty hard to serve turkey with a smile when your ex-husband shows up with his blonde-of-the-week, bringing expensive gifts for the kids even though his child support is always late. You eye the carving knife and wonder whether a jury would convict you.

In that spirit, we note that representatives of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America recently sat down with representatives of the North American Lutheran Church. The ELCA press release strikes us as ... curt. Quoting an official statement, it says:
"This meeting was not intended to, nor did the participants seek to, resolve issues between the two church bodies," said the statement. "Rather, the participants sought to share and clarify disagreements to improve mutual understanding." Conversations also centered on local mission and ministry.
To "clarify disagreements" is surely the first step in an ecumenical relationship with partners from whom one has been separated for centuries, or never had any prior relationship -- Rome, the AME Zion, whatever. In the case of these two bodies, we would have thought the disagreements were pretty clear. As for "local mission and ministry," we wonder how much of that consisted of "Why won't you give us those buildings" and how much of "Pay back your damn loans, mission grants, and ELCA-subsidized seminary ejumacations first."

But, difficult though the first step may have been, and rancorous though our own wretched hearts may still be, we are glad it has been taken. We take a certain muted pride in knowing that the initiative here came from the ELCA's 2011 churchwide assembly. As why should it not? We didn't kick them out, and even if life is a wee bit easier without them, we want good a relationship now, and the hope to have them back someday before Jesus comes.

(Actually, seriously, we're beginning to consider a Benedict XVI-style ordinariate thing, someday down the road. Non-geographic synods trouble us in principle, and "alternative episcopal oversight" hasn't really helped the CofE, but ... well, maybe it would be worth trying. Someday when tempers cool.)

All of which brings us to a dispiriting story we just heard. We can't share the details, but it's something like this:

A very, very conservative congregation in our synod (and a large one) has been witholding its benevolence money for years. But it has continued to do two other things: give generously to the synod's ambitious missions programs, and organize and host an annual synodical event, at its own considerable expense, as a gift to the whole community. Now, even though this parish has surely been tempted tempted by the iron pyrites of the NALC, it has not broken communion. It has even continued supporting mission work. All things considered, this shows considerable strength of character, as well as a commitment to unity.

And yet its offer of hospitality has been rejected by influential synod leaders. We're not sure why -- whether it is about the benevolence money, or simply the deep disagreement over sex and so forth. But either way, we are a little shocked. To reject a gift is ungracious under most circumstances; under these, it seems both impolitic and ... well, almost cruel. If the parish can make its tent big enough to accommodate people who disagree with its consensus, surely the synod can as well.

All of which brings us to our point. We've been pretty scathing about the leaders of the NALC, CORE and the rest of it. And -- let's be firm -- we don't think they have behaved wisely or honorably. But there are also hundreds, probably thousands, of pastors and congregations who have struggled with conscience and conviction, and decided in favor of unity over purity.

These congregations pose a particular challenge to those of us who feel that CWA 2009 was, if not wise as Chalcedon, at least doing the best thing under the circumstances. Have we done our part, whatever it may be, to honor our friends and colleagues who disagree, but have chosen to stick it out by our side anyway? Have we gone just a little bit further than we might have, to answer their love and faithfulness with our own?

The question isn't rhetorical -- since the Egg moved its production facility offshore, we really don't know what's happening back home. Maybe ELCA gatherings, from a conference Bible study up, have all turned into the Peaceable Kingdom. We hope so. But if not, it seems to us that the people who feel like they won have an obligation to the people who feel like they lost.


Pastor Joelle said...

How do you give and receive a "liturgical gift"? Can I request liturgical gifts for my birthday?

Mark C. Christianson said...

I'm a little confused by the language of "liturgical gift" as well. I thought I understood its first instance, which seemed to suggest that the congregation offered a particular worship style that was unique or very well done. But I'm not sure how a synod rejects this. So I'm confused by what you mean by "liturgical gift" and how a synod rejects it.

Anonymous said...

Why do you think this is so important to begin with? You and Missouri are both shrinking away rapidly. Who cares?

Father Anonymous said...

Okay, I changed it to something less coy. I was trying to keep the details extra-vague to avoid hurting any feelings. It's a delicate situation.

Father Anonymous said...

@ Anonymous: your comment makes no sense. We care because we're connected to each other, just like members of any family; size isn't the question here, just relationship.

The real question is why YOU care enough to troll this site so consistently; my guess is that you're an ex-Lutheran filled with some sort of unresolved rage against Mommy and Daddy. My strong suggestion is that you work it out in therapy, since I'm not going to provide you with a forum any longer.

Mark C. Christianson said...

Thanks for the clarification, Father A. The synods refusal to accept the congregation's hospitality is troubling and disturbing.

James of the Tonsure said...

Let me say first, I have no greater insight as to why the hospitality you write about has been declined (and I'm assuming that I know the matter about which you speak). It is a good thing to offer hospitality to one's synod, and that should be, and has been appreciated. That said, my guess is that it has been unclear whether this was a parish event to which the synod was invited, or a synodical event hosted by a local congregation. To this observer it seems that it may be that as a synodical service, said synodfolk wanted greater freedom to shape and conduct the event than was afforded by the hosting congregation. That's a guess on my part.
For my own $.02, I was generally made un-comfortable by a certain style of ecclesial haberdashery being worn in the presence of and perhaps competing with that of the bishop, while also breaking a kind of solidarity with the rest of the ministerium.
--Edit as necessary for sensitivity purposes...or don't post and reply directly.

Father Anonymous said...

I don't think anything needs editing, as long as we speak in very general terms here.

I share your haberdashery concerns (to put it mildly; I have a whole rant on that subject, which I'll sneak into some other context).

As for ownership of the thing itself, well, I always saw it as a gift -- which one party owns until it is given to the other. But of course the synod is free to do whatever it wants, which includes going out to Macy's and buying its own stuff.

My bigger concern is that this is a missed opportunity for the [perceived] "winners" to be deliberate about respecting and honoring the people who feel as though they have lost. And any one case may have its own circumstances -- but a church that isn't ready to be gracious is a church which doesn't value its own unity.

Tim Fisher said...

I find it difficult to judge whether the synod did a bad thing or not. Not all offers of hospitality are necessarily what they seem on the surface. However, just going with the info the good Father A. provides, I find myself in substantial agreement--we need to take what opportunities we have to reconcile whatever enmities may exist.