(or all mainline Protestants, or all Christendom, for that matter)
by Vaughn Roste
Â Note: The son of two Lutheran pastors, Vaughn Roste is a Canadian who has worshipped and worked in Episcopalian, Presbyterian, United and Christian Reformed Churches, but his current employment is teaching at a United Methodist College. He has visited five continents and lived on four of them, holds three degrees in two different areas (theology and music), and has written one book: “The Xenophobe’s Guide to the Canadians,” available at Amazon.com.
Yes, indeed. There is a strong possibility that the ELCIC (Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada) will be voting on this possibility at its annual convention this summer. What is this church coming to?
An understanding, I hope. I hope the church is coming to an understanding of the damage that it has done, and continues to do, to LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, or Queer) people. I hope that it’s starting to realize how its policies hurt others, and itself. And I believe it’s possible that critical mass might soon be achieved by those who wish to effect change. Let me give you, as concisely as possible, ten reasons why the ELCIC should accept LGBTQ clergy.
1. Because Lutherans believe in the priesthood of all believers. If LGBTQ people are “permitted” to be baptized members, then it is a double-standard to not allow them to serve in leadership capacities as well. Why should “they” be allowed to serve communion, conduct the choir, teach Sunday school, be an usher, lector, or church president – but not be clergy? For what other groups do we reserve the dubious distinction of a ceiling, lavender or otherwise? None. Are we really saying that all other sinners may become clergy except this one, just because it makes us the most uncomfortable? (And don’t tell me about “living in sin,” as we all do – Romans 3:10). Jesus said, “whoever accepts anyone I send accepts me; and whoever accepts me accepts the one who sent me.” (John 13:20). In opening ourselves up to receiving another person into our hearts – and into our folds – we open ourselves up to God.
2. Because the church needs to be about breaking down barriers between people, not erecting them. For years now LGBTQ people have been recognized as a class of people (Canadian sociologist Harry H. Hiller identifies four factors in establishing a recognizable community: locality, organization, durability, and self-identity. The gay community qualifies on all fronts) – they are a discernable demographic in more than just economic and political terms! The question before us is thus “what kind of church do you want to be a part of – one which enforces prejudice against a discernable minority (any discernable minority) or one which embraces all believers as sisters and brothers in the faith? “Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.” (Rom 15:7).
3. Because Lutherans have moved beyond a literalist interpretation of the Bible. The scriptural “prohibitions” against same-sex relations have been clearly shown to not be relevant to the contemporary debate – none of them address the situation of loving adults in consensual relationships. I’ve always found that the best argument against the six “clobber” passages is also the simplest: that “homosexuality” as we know it today was unknown in Biblical times (the word only being coined in the late nineteen century); therefore the Biblical writers could not possibly have been talking about it. Given that the Bible is silent on the topic, how then shall we live?
4. Because the ELCIC decided to ordain women over thirty year ago. Read the arguments against that decision from 1972. Reactionary conservatives clamoured about the clear word of Scripture and made dire predictions about the church’s immanent self-destruction. Sound familiar? We’ve been here before, and weathered it just fine. We now mostly all agree that the Holy Spirit called us out of our darkness then to make that decision – who can argue against the same phenomenon now with integrity? Arguably, the very reason that this debate still exists – and, despite all the proof-texting in the world, will not go away – is because it is the Holy Spirit’s will. If the ELCIC can decide then to ignore the “clear word of Scripture” about women having leadership positions in the church (1 Timothy 2:12), it can certainly make the corollary decision now.
5. Because Canadian law now permits same-gender marriage nationwide. Changing the discriminatory policy only catches the church up with contemporary society. It’s happening whether we like it or not. The Church of England currently is “investigating” reports that over 80 of its priests have had same-gender civil union ceremonies – recently legal in Great Britain – despite the Archbishop of Canterbury’s specific request that none do so. The ELCA is estimated to have spent some $100,000 on the church trial of Rev. Brad Schmeling, pastor at St. John’s Lutheran in Atlanta, once he admitted to being in a same-gender relationship. These situations become bureaucratic nightmares (and, possibly, legal headaches) for individuals and hierarchical church authorities alike. Let us not naÃ¯vely think that it could not, will not happen here. Those in the know are aware that it already has – and continues to occur. The church has lost its chance to be prophetic on this matter – but it can still do the right thing.
6. Because the ELCIC currently needs pastors – and here is a ready and willing supply. It is estimated that at any given moment there are roughly 100 ELCIC parishes without a pastor in Canada. The Extraordinary Candidacy Project recently expanded its mission into Canada. It rosters candidates who have the theological training and are otherwise fully qualified for call except for one detail – they refuse to abide by the unfair celibacy requirement expected of openly LGBTQ candidates. They do not feel that their call to ministry is simultaneously a call to celibacy, single-hood, or loneliness. Nor do they want to enter into living a lie about either their orientation or activities. The church can stop its terrible policy of forcing excellent candidates to artificially bifurcate their spiritual and sexual lives and instead provide a path of integrity and wholeness; none should have to make such an awful choice. The toll has already proven to be very great. (Lutherans Concerned/North America member Vicky Pedersen is currently attempting to poll and enumerate of the members of the Lutheran communion in North America who have had their careers, callings, and livelihoods truncated or threatened by the church’s current policy.
7. Because the GLBTQ pastors who are out there are incredibly talented people. Beyond mere numbers, the talents and gifts so clearly held and expressed by LGBTQ candidates soon becomes obvious to anyone who spends any amount of time with them. Just as the first women to be ordained had to overcome greater obstacles than their male contemporaries did, today’s LGBTQ candidates face more hurdles – but interestingly enough, seem to have been gifted with the grace to be able to handle them well. LGBTQ candidates often compare very favourably with any candidate from the usual clergy roster, as they’ve typically had to work much harder, both on the inside and the outside, to get to the same place as their straight colleagues. Parishioners sometimes fear that the congregation will lose members if a LGBTQ candidate is hired, but in fact the opposite is the case. While published statistics are hard to come by, most churches who have called LGBTQ clergy have reported a growth in church membership – this despite overall declining church membership over the past twenty years. It seems that LGBTQ pastors understand the experience of being marginalized, and arguably are thus better equipped to do outreach to a community that has traditionally been excluded – and not just queer communities but all sorts of people. Some people are encouraged to brave darkening the door of the church who never would otherwise: because they know the church has a gay pastor, therefore they can be confident that they will be accepted as well, no matter what their colour, family structure, country of origin, or martial or immigrant status.
Thus the only people who can vote against such a proposal are those who do not listen – I daresay that they have not spent even fifteen minutes listening to (i.e. really hearing) a LGBTQ seminarian. Get to know a few of them and you will quickly agree that their sense of call, their self-awareness of their own gifts, and their innate ability to do ministry is readily apparent. The church closes itself off to good people and hurts itself by not recognizing their gifts. It also shuts itself off from what the Holy Spirit is trying to do in today’s word.
8. Because a vote for local option is the only way to avoid a church schism. Granting some congregations the ability to call LGBTQ pastors while forcing none to do so gives Canada Lutheranism the largest umbrella with which to be church. While some vocal opponents have made much ado about their intention to secede should this proceed, less vocal are those who have long abandoned the church due to the pain it has caused them, their families, or their friends. Voting against local option does not mean the church stays together, for it has already broken up. It only makes for a smaller church – one that is more tightly defined, and one less welcoming for everybody. It will mean continued struggle by more progressive congregations to discern if they can continue to support the ELCIC despite its discriminatory policies – and it can mean no end to protracted legal disputes, both within and outside of the ELCIC, over churches who, propelled by their sense of social justice and their conscience, continue to act in violation of unfair church policies. Permitting local option is the only way to say “yes, we may disagree on this issue for the time being, but we will try to do so humbly and live together peaceably nonetheless.” Luther would have agreed with the agreement to disagree, as he said “It is not necessary… that ceremonies, instituted by men, should be observed uniformly in all places” (Augsburg Confession VII). It’s as God would have us do (Roman 12:18; see also 1 Thessalonians 5:13).
9. Because Martin Luther himself deplored celibacy – and here we are, not quite five centuries later, institutionalizing it (but only for a select group of people). Luther revolted so much against the Roman Catholic requirement of celibacy for priests – and he felt so confident in the non-existence of its scriptural basis and of its validity – that he married a nun. Those LGBTQ Lutherans who engage in same-gender marriage in Canada thus follow well in Luther’s footsteps. Lutherans have never believed in enforcing celibacy. In a contemporary context, this decision would make current policy consistent with centuries of Lutheran thought.
10. Because doing so obeys a clear call from the Holy Spirit – God at work in the world today. The church is called to lead society, and we should do that by example. If we want to be a more welcoming, inclusive church, this is the way to do it. The church can no longer perpetuate pain and injustice on a persecuted minority. It is time to end unjust and discriminatory practices in our own home. For it is only in so doing that we could thus speak with integrity to our broken world.
This action would enable the church to live up to its own mission of bringing the Gospel to all peoples and allow it to live by example how we are all children of God – not just some of us. Ultimately, the debate about gay clergy is not about Biblical interpretation, Scriptural authority, or church politics, policies, or polity. It’s about people – good people, people called to be ministers for the Church of Christ by the Holy Spirit itself. It’s about who we are as a church – and who we want to be. And, of course, it’s about what God is calling each of us to do, today, in this day and age – love one another (John 13:34) as God loves us, unconditionally- and what the Holy Spirit is calling our church to be.
Thanks to Lionel Ketola and Ralph Wushke for their editorial suggestions.