By Jeffrey Shy
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), a full communion partner of The Episcopal Church (TEC) met this past week in Orlando, Florida for its biennial Churchwide Assembly (CWA). The CWA is the ELCA counterpart to TEC’s General Convention. One of the centerpieces in this year’s meeting was a complex report and set of recommendations titled, “Living Into the Future Together – Renewing the Ecology of the ELCA,” usually abbreviated as LIFT.
As a mainstream Protestant church, the ELCA is facing many of the same problems as those confronting TEC: declining membership, financial difficulties, concerns about national structure and its relationship to the church’s mission locally and globally and an ongoing controversy over issues of human sexuality. The purpose of this study was “to recognize the evolving societal and economic changes of the twenty years since the formation of this church [the ELCA having formed in 1987 from a union of The Lutheran Church in America, The American Lutheran Church and The Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches] and to evaluate the organization, governance and interrelationships among this church’s expressions in the light of those changes. The intended result of the Ecology Study Task Force’s work is a report and recommendations that will position this church for the future and explore new possibilities for participating in God’s mission.” (LIFT, p. 4) In its 100 pages including addenda in its PDF form, a variety of challenges to the ongoing mission and ministry of the ELCA are addressed with implementing recommendations for a host of changes from the level of the individual congregation to the church as a whole.
Of particular interest to those of us in TEC are portions that deal with the effects of and response to the ELCA CWA 2009’s adoption of the social statement on sexuality, “Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust” and its new policy permitting clergy to live in same-gender committed relationships. Tucked away in one of the appendices to the LIFT report were the results of a survey at multiple levels from individuals up to higher-level organizations within ELCA on a variety of topics including those things perceived as having had a negative impact on local congregations.
Responders at the individual level identified a number of factors having a negative impact on congregations, and leading these were: economic changes in the local community, changes in the culture of American society and changes in the religious climate or culture of American society. These were perceived as negative impacts on congregations by about a 2/3 majority of clergy, lay leaders and open responders (presumably mostly laity, although clergy were not excluded). Coming in fifth was the CWA’s actions in 2009 on human sexuality perceived as having a negative impact by 53% of clergy, 61% of lay leaders and 45% of the “open” category. On further analysis of the “open” responder group, it was clear that age was a major factor in how one responded. For those 44 or younger, the sexuality actions and social statement were perceived as positive by 31% and having had no impact by 34% (a sum of 65% positive and 35% negative). Among persons 45 or older, the reaction was 49% negative, a substantial difference.
In what might be seen as a backlash provoked by the 2009 actions, the LIFT report drafters recommended against bringing any new “social statements to Churchwide Assemblies until a review of the process for addressing social concerns based on a spirit of communal discernment is completed,” (2011 Pre-Assembly Report: Recommendations on Living into the Future Together (LIFT), Section IV, page 29) suggesting a desire to slow the process of consideration of contentious social issues. The LIFT recommendations were adopted and a further action of the assembly authorized “the ELCA Church Council, in consultation with the Conference of Bishops and Communal Discernment Task force, to establish a review process of current procedures for the development and adoption of social statements,” (2011 Pre-Assembly Report: Recommendations on Social Statements, Section IV, page 2). One of the reasons cited in the rationale for this recommendation was that “some in this church have described feeling burdened by the rapid succession, overlapping time lines, and controversial aspects of developing documents [i.e. social statements]. (2011 Pre-Assembly Report: Recommendations of Social Statements, Section IV, page 1). What will be the recommendations of this review process will likely not be known for some time. Following the 2009 assembly, the ELCA has seen the secession of more than 600 congregations and the formation of a schismatic new church, the NALC (the North American Lutheran Church).
For those of us looking forward to General Convention 2012 and the initial report of the Standing Commission on Liturgy on resources for same-sex blessings and well as the ongoing conflicts around the proposed Anglican Covenant, it may be wondered if TEC might face similar expressions of a need to slow down for a time on the contentious issues of sexuality.
Should TEC “pull back” and “let the world catch up” or move forward with the next General Convention?
Jeffrey L. Shy, M.D. is a neurologist in clinical practice in Mesa, Arizona and a parish member of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Phoenix.