James Nipper has his work cut out for him.
As senior pastor of Our Saviour Lutheran Church in Johnson City, Tenn., he must lead the congregation in a kind of figurative pilgrimage regarding sex and sexuality.
The church is traveling on a long and winding road with its denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The ELCA decided during last month’s Church Wide Assembly to permit people in same-sex relationships to enter its ordained ministry.
“Up until this time, it was accepted that these pastors could serve in the ELCA as long as these remained celibate,” Nipper explained in an e-mail this week. “This document now allows for pastors who are in committed relationships with people of the same gender to be reinstated to the clergy roster and/or allowed to receive a call to serve in the ELCA.”
“Pastor Jim” regards this new policy as “more of a process, a procedure, by which a congregation can choose to call a gay pastor.” No such process existed before.
About 60 members of the Our Saviour congregation attended an open forum on Sunday afternoon. The congregation has about 500 confirmed members and an average worship attendance of about 215.
“We had a lively discussion,” Nipper said. “We did not come to a consensus but we did have a like mind that we should stay together as a congregation.”
He could have said the same thing about the national body: there’s little consensus about blessing same-sex relationships or ordaining gays and lesbians for ministry, but hope to stay together. Last month’s convention, made up of clergy and laypeople who represent churches and regional synods, approved the main document by a vote of 676-338, exactly the minimum two-thirds majority required for passage.
To its credit, the ELCA has not taken the easy path. If the denomination’s utmost concern was keeping membership up or maintaining some kind of superficial peace, it could have settled matters years ago. (The ELCA is by far the largest of several Lutheran bodies in the U.S., but like other mainline Protestant denominations, it has been shrinking for decades. The denomination reported 4.6 million baptized members in 2008, down from 5.25 million in 1988.)
As it is, the social statement, “Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust,” resulted from eight years of discussions, meetings, debates and votes. The ELCA has produced social statements on several issues, and they are considered teaching documents as well as policy statements.
This one is a broad, thoughtful statement of church teaching about sexuality and related issues, from abuse to economics to pornography, as well as marriage and, of course, same-sex relationships. As the title suggests, it emphasizes sexuality in its God-given nature as both a gift and matter of trust.
What grabbed headlines, of course, were the resolutions permitting people “in publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships” to enter any of the church’s four formal levels of church ministry.
The resolutions are careful to provide for “structured flexibility,” allowing individuals and congregations to live by their “bound conscience.” In short, while the ELCA won’t forbid people in same-sex relationships to enter ministry, it won’t force the issue either.
But as serious as issues about homosexuality are, even more is at stake. By all accounts, these decisions raise questions about core beliefs, from biblical interpretation to the meaning of marriage to the validity of two millennia of Christian teaching.
Critics note all this, and more.
“The ELCA has formally left the Great Tradition (of confessing Christian churches) for liberal Protestantism,” Robert Benne wrote in a commentary on the Christianity Today Web site. Benne is the director of the Roanoke (Va.) College Center for Religion and Society and was a voting member at last month’s assembly. “A tectonic shift has taken place, and it wasn’t primarily about sex.”
Benne predicts “a profusion of different responses by congregations and individuals.” Besides those who approve the new policy, many will leave the denomination, he wrote. Some will wait to see how an organized renewal movement responds. Others will pull away from their involvement in the ELCA to live at the local level. Still others “will try to live on as if nothing has happened.”
The way ahead for Our Saviour Lutheran Church, according to Pastor Nipper, will include Bible-oriented studies, small group discussions and an effort to “help our people look positively to the future.”
Yes, he has his work cut out.
Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 5 Sept 2009.