It’s been a long time coming. Many years, in fact. After all, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), the denomination of which I was a member for the first 50 years of my life, has been discussing, debating, and postponing taking a stand on the issue of sexual orientation for more than 20 years.
For me, it has always been an ethical, moral, and spiritual issue. A matter of social justice. So nearly a decade ago, I told the then-pastor of the church to which I belonged that, should the congregation decide to secede from the ELCA because a majority of its members disagreed with the position the ELCA would eventually take on the matter, that would terminate my affiliation with the congregation. As it turned out, luckily for me, I left the church more than three years before my former congregation got around to wrestling with the question of whether or not to remain a part of the ELCA.
I have belonged to two ELCA congregations in Lodi. I left the church in which I grew up, and served as organist/pianist, choir accompanist, and in many other capacities over the years, when a new pastor arrived who, at the outset, abdicated his responsibilities as staff administrator. He literally refused to meet with me and my co-organist, insisting that the issues surrounding our ongoing employment “should have been resolved before I got here.” As if that weren’t bad enough, he told me that he would be “delighted” to meet with me to discuss my “faith, but not your service to [this congregation] as organist.” It was one of the few times in my life when I was rendered speechless. But after a few moments, I responded, “Well, when you figure out how to disconnect the two, give me a call.” I hung up the phone, drove to the church, gathered all of my organ and piano music, and walked out the door. In my opinion, any pastor who could make such a statement must have been absent during a few seminary lectures on the topics of service as an extension and expression of faith, and the true meaning of servanthood. It was several years before I went back into the building at all. I have worshiped there the past two Christmas Eves, but otherwise abstain from church attendance.
My feelings about that pastor’s leadership — or lack thereof — were validated more than a year later when I met with the then-pastor of the other ELCA congregation in town. Although, to his credit, he did not comment, I can still see the look of shock and disbelief on his face when I told him what the pastor of my home church had said to me. Candidly, I would never have joined any flock were it not for the fact that #1Son was entering junior high school and I felt compelled to enroll him in Confirmation classes. At that point in my life, I still believed that Confirmation was an essential rite of passage. It remains unclear even to me to what extent that was my own belief versus how much I was motivated by a desire to make my mother, a lifelong Lutheran, happy by seeing her grandsons Confirmed in the Lutheran faith.
It was an uneasy partnership from the start. Those folks are a self-proclaimed “conservative congregation” — a major understatement. A civil rights attorney then employed by the largest state-run civil rights enforcement agency in the country, I never felt truly at home, at ease. I always had my guard up because I knew that my views on many issues were diametrically opposed to those of my fellow worshipers, while the pastors valiantly tried to walk a middle line.
Believing in civil rights can be a double-edged sword because, if you are a true believer, you tolerate others’ differing world views. That means accepting that, within the context of religion and spirituality, all views are pretty much valid. In this society, we do not impose upon organized religion the same values and standards that are de rigueur in the secular world. Within our religious institutions, discrimination, bigotry, and exclusion are, to some members, not just acceptable, but mandated by their interpretation of Scripture. As a civil rights attorney, I must stand ready to fight for those folks’ right to believe as they do, no matter how personally repugnant I find their outlook. It is akin to the criminal defense attorney who represents the person accused of committing the most abhorrent crime because every defendant is entitled to a competent, vigorous defense. In its social teaching statement on Sexuality, the ELCA approaches the issue this way:
Thus, we recognize that this church’s deliberations related to human sexuality require our best moral discernment and practical wisdom in the worldly realm, even though these matters are not central to determining our salvation. We also understand that in this realm faithful people can and sometimes will come to different conclusions about what constitutes responsible action. Therefore, this social statement seeks to assist this church in discerning what best serves the neighbor in the complexity of human relationships and social needs in the midst of daily life.
I appreciate the words of Pastor Mark Price, the current pastor of my home congregation, to the membership. In keeping with the Biblical command to view others’ words and deeds in the most positive light, he wrote in this month’s newsletter:
We, who only by the grace of God, are not involved in polarized conflict, may wonder what our role is with our friends, as individuals and as a faith community. In some ways we are in the position of watching our friend’s marriage teeter on the edge of divorce. We may feel helpless and have trouble finding ways to respond. We can begin by not taking sides, but rather we can seek to put the most positive construction on our neighbor’s actions and words. . . . We can help our friends reduce their stress by listening (without agreeing or disagreeing with them) and then by helping them to hear and think their way through the conflict issues. We can also remind them that the center of their congregation is to be Christ. If the members involved are willing to love each other as Christ loves them, then this “center” will hold, regardless of differing opinions on very emotional topics. We can be sure to remind our friends of the reality of heaven. In heaven they are going to be kneeling at the foot of Christ sharing in the heavenly feast, side by side with one another, so they may as well figure out a way to do that now. This is what is meant in the words of the Lord’s prayer, “on earth as in heaven.” We can point to the ELCA churchwide assembly which was a beautiful witness of this love in action. At the assembly people who had well thought-out, deeply held, differing opinions were able to hold each other close (physically and spiritually) in prayer, worship and in community. However, with your friends, if physical separation from their church appears to be the only option for them, then help them to keep worshiping some place. Finally we can pray for them and for their church. We can pray that God will use us as messengers of His love and reconciliation. . . .
I could not, cannot, and will not lead a double life, segregating my secular from my religious/spiritual viewpoints and/or activities. Just as my service to my home congregation was intricately and inextricably intertwined with my faith (something one would expect a pastor to understand and appreciate), my commitment to civil rights and social justice transcends my surroundings and the persons with whom I interact at any given time.
Several years ago, after a series of evening classes exploring sexual orientation and the question of whether the Lutheran church should ordain members of the GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender) community and/or sanction their marriages, it was clear that I could not preach the good news about civil rights during the workweek, yet spend Sunday mornings among a group of people who were actively railing against equality within their own ranks. While willing to defend their right to believe as they see fit, I also had to look at my own reflection in the mirror every morning. The chasm between my personal value system and what I heard in church — from the pulpit and my fellow members — was ever-widening.
I could appreciate the pastor’s role as peacemaker. But I could not stomach his silence in the face of blatantly homophobic hate-speech. And this is where I struggle with Pastor Mark’s words, even as well-intentioned and Biblically sound as they are. Participation in church activities is supposed to be uplifting and inspiring, and engender peace and harmony in one’s own spiritual journey. Increasingly, I found myself angry and repulsed by the sense of moral superiority on display when the subject of sexual orientation was broached in my former congregation. I lost respect for a pastor who stood silent rather than confront a parishioner who said, “I know how to resolve this issue. Just let the gays have their own church and we’ll have ours.”
So, perhaps, I failed. I could not figure out a way to serve the church side by side with my fellow parishioners, some of whom refused to speak to me or even acknowledge my presence after I was literally the only person who spoke out in favor of equality during that class on sexual orientation. Mine was not an experience of people with “well thought-out, deeply held, differing opinions [being] able to hold each other close (physically and spiritually) in prayer, worship and in community.” I felt shunned, ostracized, and “out of the club” because of my beliefs. And when, a few years later, the pastor revealed himself to be lacking integrity in other aspects of the call to lead, I rightly concluded that physical separation from that “conservative congregation” was the only viable, healthy option for me.
On January 31, 2010, that congregation formally voted on the question of whether to sever its affiliation with the ELCA “because ELCA delegates voted at their national convention last summer to allow gays in committed relationships to become pastors and deacons and to allow same-sex couples to be officially blessed by the church.” The congregation’s constitution requires a two-thirds vote of church members in good standing present and voting.
The final tally? Two votes shy. So, for now, the church remains a member of the ELCA. However, since at least six members have submitted letters requesting another vote, that will take place this Sunday, February 21, 2010. A third and final vote will take place within 90 days. In the event that it does secede from the ELCA, the congregation is exploring its options which include joining Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ, the American Association of Lutheran Churches or the Lutheran Coalition for Renewal.
What will happen to the one-third or so members who voted to remain part of the ELCA? Will they remain part of the congregation if, in fact, the next ballot nets the two-thirds votes needed in order to secede from the ELCA? Or will they, like me, leave the congregation? And will they, like me, abdicate church membership altogether or become part of my former home congregation?
Whatever is decided, I am selfishly thankful not to be involved. Although I will always, on some level, consider myself a Lutheran and still believe most of what I learned growing up in the church, I find that I conceptualize faith in a different manner now. My approach to spiritual matters continues to evolve as I grow older. I could not re-join a Lutheran congregation — or any church — if I found myself unable to reconcile my ethical perspective and professional responsibilities with what I heard and experienced on Sunday mornings. On the issue of inclusivity, I confess that I am decidedly intolerant. Never again could I regularly associate with and be a member of any group actively bent upon denying the same rights they enjoy to members of the GLBT community solely on the basis of sexual orientation. Friends have talked to me about their churches, asking me to visit on Sunday morning with the goal of getting me back in the habit of regular church attendance. The subject is quickly dropped, however, when I ask them about their church’s stance on the issue of sexual orientation. Most churches, unlike the ELCA, aren’t even questioning or discussing whether to modify their traditional viewpoint.
And through it all, I can’t help but wonder what Martin Luther himself would think about the controversy. Seeing what it has come to, what would he have to say to his followers?
Update: The Lodi News-Sentinel reported that the second vote occurred on February 21, 2010, and resulted in a 162-32 to secede from the ELCA. Members of the congregation have an opportunity to vote again on June 13, 2010. If a two-thirds majority still opts to secede, there will also be votes to determine which of the other Lutheran organizations to join, as well as whether to ask the current pastor (who is a rostered member of the ELCA clergy) to interview with the Lutheran congregation they decide to join.