On Welcoming Prophets

On Welcoming Prophets

David R. Weiss, March 3, 2010

The church as a whole, like its Hebrew forebears and its Jewish cousins, has a better record of recognizing its prophets long after their words and deeds have lost their edge than of responding well to them in the present moment.

From Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Jesus on to Martin Luther and Martin Luther King, Jr., those voices who spoke words of unwelcome truth to power have rarely—if ever—been warmly welcomed.

So it is not surprising that the ELCA, especially within its institutional structures where power lingers as much by inertia as by intent, has a hard time knowing how to “welcome” onto its roster those seventeen persons ordained extra ordinem over the past two decades. Still, as the bishops gather this weekend (March 4-9, 2010) to consider on what terms to extend the recognition of ministry to these persons, it is worth reflecting on the weight of this present moment.

Of the approximately forty persons on the roster of Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries (ELM), more than half have been duly ordained by a Lutheran body and either left ministry or were removed from ministry due to the ELCA’s discriminatory policy toward gay and lesbian pastors. They became rostered through ELM as part of their return to ministry. A handful of persons on the roster are approved for call but not yet ordained.

But the ELM roster also includes “the Seventeen”—those who were called and ordained into ministry through acts of ecclesial disobedience, conspiring (that is “breathing together”) with ELCA congregations to respond to the call of the Spirit in a time before that call was acknowledged by church structures. Each of these Seventeen met all of the criteria required of every ELCA pastor, except that they chose not to submit to the one criterion held to be unjust and at odds with the gospel (that is, the criterion of mandatory celibacy for gay and lesbian person).

Hence, unable to be faithful to the Spirit’s call within the church’s policies, their ordinations were completed extra ordinem—“outside of regular orders.” It is these seventeen extraordinarily ordained persons who pose such a quandary for our bishops and our church.

If these Seventeen are simply received onto the ELCA roster, does that implicitly “reward” their disregard for good order … or does it humbly acknowledge them as prophets of an advent of justice and good news that the ELCA itself only began to recognize last August?

The theology of these next steps is clearer than it might seem at first glance. The Lutheran Confessions affirm that there are rare but clear occasions in which churches may ordain, independent of bishops or other human authority. ELM has made a cogent case that their ordinations are such instances. And the actions of Churchwide 2009 confirm this. In acknowledging the legitimacy of a biblical/theological perspective that affirms same-gender relationships, the ELCA Assembly also implicitly acknowledged that churches and individuals whose actions (even regarding ordination) were motivated by this perspective were indeed acting in good faith even before August 2009. And I mean “good faith” in the deepest, most theological sense. Not merely in genuine sincerity, but in genuine faithful response to the gospel.

The possibility of “re-ordaining” such persons is thus much more than theologically problematic. It flirts with ecclesiolatry—namely, the danger of giving greater reverence to the fixed structures of a church than to the freedom of God.

There is, of course, something to be said for good order. But whenever a church’s desire for good order threatens outright to eclipse its proclamation of the gospel, its repentance of past injustice, and its practice of justice in the present moment—when these things happen, then good order has been pressed into the service of preserving power and privilege. Such order no longer serves the God who came preaching good news to the poor and liberating the captives.

We are not, after all, really discussing the reception of these Seventeen onto the ELCA roster. Let’s at least be clear about that.

We are discussing the efficacy of every baptism performed by these Seventeen. Would we, for the sake of “good order,” render every one of these baptisms as nothing more than playing with water? Would we, for the sake of “good order,” call into question the faith of any of these children or parents that their baptisms had truly marked them forever with the cross of Christ?

We are discussing the efficacy of every meal presided at by these Seventeen. Would we, for the sake of “good order,” retroactively banish Jesus from every meal at which they had beckoned him present? Would we, for the sake of “good order,” wish to state that every one of these congregations has been sacramentally malnourished under these Seventeen?

We are, indeed, discussing the very depth of welcome that we mean to extend to—or to withhold from—every gay and lesbian person of faith. Period. If we “welcome” these Seventeen onto the ELCA roster by dismissing their prior ministry, by rejecting the authority and the spiritual integrity of the congregations that called and ordained them, and by asserting our power over them, we will have sent a Jim Crow-like warning to every gay and lesbian child of God in our sanctuaries and beyond, that in this church gay and lesbian persons enter on our terms, not God’s. We will have committed an act of inhospitality the likes of which will rival the men of Sodom.

Finally, we are discussing our own repentance for decades, even centuries, in which the church—this church and its predecessors—has squashed vocations, fractured families, withered faith, and been complicit in the despair and suicide of countless of God’s children. And do we dare discuss a matter of such gravity—of such guilt on our part—by thinking to suggest that we “solve” it by re-ordaining these Seventeen people?!

If we go down this road, we must be ready for the company we will keep. We will hear Rachel weeping for her children. We will hear Jeremiah accusing us of healing the wound of our people too lightly, pretending by these re-ordinations to say “peace, peace,” when then is no peace. We will hear Isaiah cry out plaintively, “For how long, O Lord, will the mind of this people be dull?” And we will hear Jesus lament—as we did only last week in our lectionary: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”

The Bible is clear on these two things. The proper response to a prophet is repentance. The most common response is throwing rocks. I hope the bishops can tell the difference.

David R. Weiss is the author of To the Tune of a Welcoming God: Lyrical reflections on sexuality, spirituality and the wideness of God’s welcome (2008, Langdon Street Press). A theologian, writer, poet and hymnist committed to doing “public theology” around issues of sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace, David lives in St. Paul, Minnesota and is a self-employed speaker and writer on the intersection of sexuality & spirituality. You can reach him at drw59@comcast.net and at https://tothetune.wordpress.com.

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3 thoughts on “On Welcoming Prophets

  1. In another forum (prettygoodlutherans.com) someone missed the rhetorical nature of my remarks about the “efficacy” of sacraments, so I added this clarification:

    When I suggest that we are “discussing the efficacy” of every baptism performed by and every Eucharistic meal presided at by one of the extraordinarily ordained pastors, I am NOT suggesting that any decision by the Conference of Bishops or the ELCA Church Council will either intend to or actually invalidate any of these.

    Lutheran theology is clear that in “emergencies” any baptized layperson can preach the Word and administer the Sacraments. I suspect, in extreme emergencies, we wouldn’t even quibble with an unbaptized person doing these things. For Lutherans, the “grammar of grace” suggests that in every instance imaginable God’s grace can and will accomplish what needs to be done.

    It’s also pretty clear that in the Confessions an “emergency” meant either the physical absence of a pastor (in the 1500’s, when the Confessions were written, you can imagine plenty of occasions in which a baptism might be needed sooner than a pastor’s presence could be procured) or the spiritual rebelliousness of church leaders (as in the conflict between the Reformers and the Catholic bishops).

    ELM’s position (as I understand it—I do NOT represent ELM in any way!) is that their ordinations fell within the latter category, being necessary for “serving and building up the Body of Christ.” And that in a time when church policy makes bishops “unwilling to ordain, the churches retain their right to do so.” (The quoted phrases are the language used in the Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope, found in The Book of Concord, Fortress Press, 2000, pp. 66-68 and employed by ELM to defend their actions as evangelical—as driven by the gospel rather than by willful disobedience to church authority.

    So while I don’t think that the bishops or the church council will ever actually discuss the efficacy of the baptisms or the meals. I frame it this way for two reasons:

    (1) There WILL be laypersons who WILL ask these questions if the ELCA decides that the Seventeen must be (re)ordained because their original ordinations were somehow deficient or out of order. It would simply be disingenuous for the bishops or anyone else to question the validity of these ordinations without acknowledging the accompanying questions (indeed doubts) that this will raise for others.

    (2) More importantly, a decision to require (re)ordination indicates a judgment that no “evangelical emergency” ever existed, that the original ordinations were thus not valid, and that these persons and these congregations HAD NO BUSINESS baptizing at the font and celebrating at the altar as they have faithfully done—some of them for decades. Such a judgment might not technically challenge the “efficacy” of the sacraments themselves, but do we really want call into question the legitimacy of these ministries—and right after we just voted by a two-thirds majority to affirm the biblical/theological perspective that drove them as one legitimate perspective in our church? Do we want to go there?

    That’s why, in my mind, this is not about efficacy but about how theology and power comingle in the church. It is often difficult for those in positions of power to hear the real impact of their decisions from a perspective beyond their own. So I write, with the reluctant urgency of a Jeremiah, that if the bishops say to the Seventeen, “Just take off your collars long enough for us to (re)ordain you,” it will sound to many as though the bishops are in fact saying, “Come out to us, so we may know you.” I hope those words, uttered as a thinly veiled threat by the men of Sodom to Lot’s angelic guests, are never spoken in this church.

  2. Mr. Weiss,

    I believe that I the person who you say “missed the rhetorical nature’ of your remarks. The rhetorical device you used in your essay is what in everday speech is called a red-herring or a straw man. At the time, I commented that you were either misinformed or being disingenuous. After reading your clarification above and noting that you attended a Lutheran seminary, I can only conclude that you were being disingenuous. Since, as you say, the 2009 CWA implcitly affirmed validity of the ministries in question, why not build your case on that basis? Why stretch the truth and imply that the efficacy of the baptisms performed by those pastors was in question?

    David Charlton

    • David Charlton,

      Thanks for your feedback. In retrospect it was not the best way to craft my position. Still, there are other options besides misinformed and disingenuous. I am neither.

      Having attended Lutheran congregations almost weekly for all but perhaps 2 years of my life, I know all too well that there will be persons who will hear a decision to require (re)ordination — should such a decision be made by the bishops — who will doubt the efficacy of those baptisms. The same will be true of the Eucharists. I was trying to make clear the stakes of this decision in the eyes of many of the faithful. However, I failed to be as clear as I should have been, driven more by my own passion. Had I let the essay sit for a day before posting it, I might well have refined, reframed, or altogether excised those two paragraphs.

      And, in any case, sometimes occasions of doubt are teachable moments. Undoubtedly the decisions of CWA 2009 raised doubts for many on the other side of this issue than I am, and I do not think their doubts should’ve carried the day. They, too, pose a teachable moment for the church. A moment I wish the church had stepped into far mote vigorously over the past decade leading up to last August.

      You are quite correct that my stronger argument is in questioning how we move from a 2/3 vote that implicitly affirmed the theology behind these ministries to a position where we seem ready to have bishops set a bar that once again marginalizes the position just affirmed. The logical response to the CWA vote would minimally be a process that regularized the ordinations with little fanfare. A fuller response would be to acknowledge and repent of the harm caused by our failure to have seen this view as legitimate much sooner. That failure cost lives. I wish I saw the bishops leading strongly in either of those directions.

      A decision to require (re)ordination is not only theologically problematic, it is pastorally insensitive, it is collegially dismissive, and it will signal not just to these Seventeen but to thousands of GLBT persons, that whatever we meant by that vote in August. it most assuredly was not “welcome.”

      While I have written on these matters for years, I am pretty new to the immediacy of the internet. I appreciate your taking the time to contact me. And I will be more precise in my writing in the future.

      Peace,
      David

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