A Bishop's Proposal
Bishop James Mauney issued this public letter last week to members of the Virginia Synod, ELCA, and also sent it on to the ELCA Conference of Bishops. The letter represents a theologically serious attempt to uphold and make use of the Lutheran doctrinal standards to engage what many feel to be a burning question of pastoral care for homosexual persons in the church. It offers an alternative to both to ignoring the question altogether and to accepting the divisive proposal to deal with it offered by the task force...
Bishop James Mauney issued this public letter last week to members of the Virginia Synod, ELCA, and also sent it on to the ELCA Conference of Bishops. It appears here on the Lutheran Forum website with his permission. The letter represents a theologically serious attempt to uphold and make use of the Lutheran doctrinal standards to engage what many feel to be a burning question of pastoral care for homosexual persons in the church. It offers an alternative to both to ignoring the question altogether and to accepting the divisive proposal to deal with it offered by the task force, in that Bishop Mauney considers the circumstances in which some version of Recommendation One could be approved without sliding down the slippery slope spelled out in Recommendations Two, Three, and Four. His open letter thus commends itself as a true compromise and an example of the episcopal leadership that this website has called for previously.
The Task Force on Human Sexuality has completed its work. A proposed social statement on Human Sexuality comes to the 2009 Churchwide Assembly in August. The Church Council has also proposed a process for considering four specific Recommendations.
I am grateful to all who have participated in this long study and conversation, especially to the participants and staff of the Task Group. I express to them my appreciation for their willingness to serve. They have led many of us to consider and reconsider what we believe about our understandings of human sexuality.
Today I wish to share my own struggle and my pastoral understanding at this time, even as I continue to seek the Spirit’s guidance through those with whom I speak and to whom I listen within and beyond our synod as the Churchwide Assembly approaches.
I seek in this reflection to explain how, with Scripture and Lutheran Confessions in hand, I could in principle support Recommendation One for the lives of those who are gay, baptized, and active in faith among us within our congregations and church.
The first Recommendation asks "whether [this church], in principle, is committed to finding ways to allow congregations and synods that choose to do so to recognize, support, and hold publicly accountable lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships." I write today only with respect to this Recommendation.
I offer this reflection so that you may see where I now find myself in the conversation. I remain open for further conversation. I seek to continue to hear and to learn from you, even as you may hear and learn new things from me. While I seek to define my own position here, I know that there is a wide divergence of thought on this topic among serious, faithful Christians.
I sense that the synods of the ELCA are not in harmony with one another in the matters of blessing same-sex unions and rostering those who are in committed same-sex relationships. Following the Jerusalem Council described in Acts, the Christian church faced a division: a church of James and a church of Peter and Paul existing within one church, both agreeing to disagree. I believe that the ELCA is moving in a similar direction.
My primary concern is that the church is asked to adopt a position about the setting apart of rostered leaders who are in committed same-sex unions before the ELCA has decided the status of committed sex unions in general.
I have been on the "conservative" side of this discussion through the years. I still am, but Recommendation One’s usage of the word "recognition" rather than "blessing" and "publicly accountable" has provided me a way to reengage in the conversation.1
I could support Recommendation One not in spite of Scripture and tradition, not in revision of the texts, but because of the Scripture and the Lutheran tradition I have been given. My support of it may come because I believe so strongly in the strength of God’s order for the church and society.
I know the biblical proscriptions and I have read the arguments of both sides.
Some of us are saying that people engaged in same-sex behavior are choosing to sin. They could refrain and keep from doing it if they wanted to. They don’t want to and this is sinful. Those who make this argument do not find anything good at all about same-sex relationships, even a lifelong monogamous relationship.
And then there are those of us who have come to the point of saying that God is creating a wide variety of sexual orientation, that it is a blessed, good thing, a gift in its diversity. God is doing a new thing or we have finally come to a new way of seeing. They do not see anything wrong at all with lifelong same-sex relationships, supported, and publicly accountable.
I am between these views. I sense that I may have a great number of ELCA Lutherans in the pew with me.
I recognize that many who are gay are not so by simply choice. We do not fully understand why we are sexually oriented the way we are, whether genetic, environmental, sociological, relational, but it seems to begin very early for just about all of us. I continue in conversation with sociologists, doctors, theologians, reading and listening, but I do not yet hear a clear foundational grounding that is Copernican in scientific proof or sociologically certain. I have not, like Peter in Acts, seen the holy vision as from only God regarding a new way of seeing. But I am becoming far more aware of the vulnerability of our gay members within our institutional church and our national culture, and I am hearing from more families who now wrestle with this within their homes.
But like all of us, I remain seeking to guard the good treasure entrusted to me.
Now it feels to me that many of us are growing in our heart for those among us who are gay, even as we remain steadfast in our understanding of Scriptures and tradition. Remaining connected with those who are gay and remaining connected with the tradition and whole church is what a colleague bishop of mine describes as the tender crossing of our heart and mind in the midst of our rescued soul. I am compelled baptismally to be grounded and rooted in the love of Christ learned through Scripture, tradition, in relationship with the whole church, through the generations and around the world. I am compelled baptismally to be grounded and rooted in the love of Christ to have regard for all my baptized sisters and brothers within this church including those who are gay.
The Christ whose love that grounds and roots us is the icon of the God we cannot see, through whom all things were created, who holds all things together, who is the head of the church, who is the firstborn from the dead, in whom all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell has come to fulfill the law even as he through suffering and death fulfills the will of the Father.
That very Christ came among us as physician for the ill, as shepherd for the lost, as father to prodigal and elder, as guest and friend who sat at table with sinners, whose life of rescue from sin, evil, and death healed, accepted, befriended, called sinners in one instance after another confounding the righteous in their lack of regard for others and calling what the righteous prized as the "highest good" an abomination (Luke 16:15).
I begin with what norms me in this matter and then move to my pastoral concern and struggle for those within our own church who are baptized and very active in the church.
Marriage and Family, Normed by Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions
1 The Holy Scripture and our Lutheran Confessions norm male/female marriage as the intention of God from Genesis to Revelation, from Small Catechism to Large Catechism. Marriage and family is normed from such a relationship. This is our grounding, our starting point, our foundation of what we believe God intends. This is the foundational strength to our generations within the life of the church and society.
2 The first story of creation grows in anticipation of male and female made in the image of God for the first blessing of Scripture, "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth." It is re-echoed in the Word of creation made flesh, "But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.’"
3 The heart of the second story of creation is the intimate relationship between God and humans, between husband and wife, between gardener and the garden, and the relationships gone awry through disobedience. The oneness of flesh is spoken in terms of a rib taken from the side, under the arm of the man. This relationship between Adam and Eve leads to the birth of children.
4 The writer of Ephesians uses the norm of husband and wife to express the love of Jesus Christ for the church. The writer uses the norm of Jesus Christ’s love for the church to define the love of husband for his wife. "Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word, so as to present the church to himself in splendor, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind—yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish." The word for "present" comes from a Greek verb meaning, "to stand beside." I believe the writer of Ephesians gets this wording from the writer of Colossians who describes the justifying, grace-filled love of Christ in these words, "And you who were estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him—provided that you continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel that you heard." The Greek verb for "present" in Colossians means "to stand beside." The mystery of Christ’s deep love for his church is presented in the metaphor of husband and wife. The description of marriage’s deep love is presented in the mystery of Christ’s love for the church. For me, they describe one joined at the hip—or rib.
5 The writer of Revelations begins his conclusion with the vision of the New Jerusalem as the bride adorned for her husband.
6 The Scriptures and Lutheran Confessions do not approve or affirm same-sex behavior at all. I do not see a single instance or even inference of approval or affirmation within them. While the argument of silence or the long, intricate arguments in Greek and social criticism seek to discount the texts within Scripture that speak against same-sex behavior, I see no support for same-sex behavior within any of our norming documents in chapter 2 of our constitution.
7 The Scriptures and Lutheran Confessions of our church order marriage, family, and society as normed by husband and wife who love and raise children in the faith. Parents are called to be bishops of their home for their children, to raise them in the faith as their highest calling.
8 This norm stands like a mustard seed becoming a strong tree for our Christian lives and society. It stands like a mighty tree of life in the midst of God’s garden.
9 Currently, the estate of marriage is the only partnered relationship recognized by the ELCA for rostered leaders. I sense that in the vast majority of congregations and people in our pews throughout the ELCA, this understanding of marriage remains the only relationship recognized for members.
10 The Word of creation that spoke order from chaos and blessed the relationship of male and female in his image is the Word made flesh, the physician who has come for the weak, the Lord who has come to rescue us from sin, evil, and death… all of us.
And among Us, within Our Congregations and Families
1 I recognize that we have gay sisters and brothers that we love within the church, baptized, who are in Christ, who have the Holy Spirit so within them that they cry "Abba Father," "Come Lord Jesus," who believe that Christ is true to his baptismal promise that they belong to him and that Christ does not lie.
2 Recommendation One has to do with recognizing our very own faithful members, many of whom were raised within our congregations. Many are our very own children, raised in the church from infancy, who remain active in the church. They are not worshipping other gods; they are baptized children of God asking the church to support their desire for a lifelong relationship with one person. They come asking for recognition, aware of Leviticus 18 and 20, aware of Romans 1, but aware also of the charge: "Return to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love." They know the proscriptions, but right along with every one of us they cling to a greater promise, "he who believes and is baptized shall be saved."
3 The Lutheran Church has tacitly recognized the presence of a gay orientation for decades. We have had some celibate gay pastors actively serving in the life of the church. We have recognized the presence of "couples" within the life of the congregation who have been strong members of our congregations. We silently recognized the reality of their presence.
4 I Corinthians 6 and Articles 23 and 27 of the Augsburg Confession, both Scripture and Lutheran Confessions, speak to the "gift" of celibacy and speak to the need for an ordered relationship for those who "burn" so that there will not be greater sin. They testify that not everyone will be able in this life to live celibately or to alter their orientation. This is also part of the reality that we need to recognize.
5 I recognize, as well, that many in our church have persevered in a life of chaste celibacy. I commend all who remain chaste and celibate. We give thanks for their model of the godly life. As a church we should celebrate and pray for single and chaste sisters and brothers who may live a life of great service in this church and in the world.
6 Our grace-based ability to recognize reality and call a thing what it really is, allows us to make the following distinction: for all of us, to be in a promiscuous life-style is dangerous, deadly, and far from the intent of God. To be in a lifelong monogamous relationship is safer and far closer to the intent of God.
7 Promiscuity leads to greater sin; monogamous life-long intent provides for more ordered relationships.
8 But some will certainly object that Scripture simply calls homosexual behavior sin and demands that it be abandoned as the condition of repentance and acceptance in the church.
The Hebrew word for "Sin" as "Missing the Mark"
While many speak of sin as a wrong deed and repentance as the simple abandoning of wrong deeds, Luther spoke of sin as a condition, a power from which he sought to be rescued. Our desire to live lives of purity and freedom from wrongdoing may be far more a reality of recognizing our being in a circumstance of sin from which we cannot entirely escape until death, but yet our ongoing desire is to live as faithfully as we can, ever asking for forgiveness in this life of our bondage to sin.
1 The Hebrew language uses several words for "sin." One of the most used words for sin is "missing the mark."
2 To miss the mark can mean to shoot at a very small stick and miss it completely.
3 To "miss the mark" can mean to miss the bull’s eye but can still be recognized as on the field of the target, perhaps as good an attempt as possible by the one making the effort.
4 To miss the mark can be recognized as the lesser of evils.
5 To miss the mark can be recognized as the best one can do given the circumstances.
6 To miss the mark can be prayed, "We give thanks to you, O Lord, not as we ought but as we are able" (from the Eucharistic Prayer). To miss the mark describes the lives of every one of us.
7 The sacraments are signs that all who miss the mark are invited and gathered in the one who is the bull’s eye, Jesus Christ, the Alpha and Omega.
8 The gospels describe the love of Jesus acting in love again and again for one person after another who missed the mark, till he was crucified himself as one who missed the mark by the righteous ones who believed they were in the bull’s eye.
9 I would say that same-sex unions "miss the mark" of the norm of marriage.
10 I would say divorce misses the mark. Recognizing a divorce may allow the lesser of evils to be done given the circumstances, perhaps even to be doing the best one can given the circumstances.
11 Recognizing a publicly accountable lifelong monogamous same-sex union may allow the best one can do given the circumstances.
12 In every congregation I know of, we presently recognize the reality of divorce. Divorce, which affects nearly 50% of our people, has been much easier for us to recognize and include within the life of the church than homosexual pairing, which at most affects 3% of our people. Not recognizing that 3%, whose circumstances seem very different from the norm, has been easier than not recognizing circumstances that have affected 50% of marriages among us. We don’t bless divorce; we recognize the reality of a divorce, and we should not remarry the divorced to another except through individual pastoral counseling, including a recognition of what was the sinful failure of a previous marriage. It is a matter of pastoral care and individual circumstance of our members seeking to live as faithfully as they can, ever asking for forgiveness in this life of our bondage to sin.
Now It Seems to Me That:
1 The love of Christ did not and does not bless our circumstances. The love of Christ recognizes the reality of our circumstances and came to rescue us from real powers of sin, evil, and death from which we cannot escape on our own, by our choice. The love of Christ acts on our behalf to make us His own. Romans 5 says that while we were sinful, weak, enemies, he proved his love in acting on our behalf.
2 The altar rail for receiving Holy Communion is the gathering of those who constantly miss the mark, invited by the Christ who actively recognized and took upon himself our sin so that he might be in communion, truly present with us, forgiving our sin and us in his life. The happy exchange that Luther speaks of is not an attitude but divine love actively taking on the circumstances of the other, taking on the life of the other.
3 Some of our members who are parents in this church have recognized and welcomed their children and their same-sex partnerships into their homes because their active love would rather have them home in a relationship with them than apart from them. They have not blessed the relationship, but they have recognized the circumstances and their love has welcomed home and embraced those they love.
4 The divine love of God for His children is even greater than the love of human parents for their children. It is slower to anger and even more abounding in steadfast love, for God knows our circumstances far better than we.
5 Recognition is not the same as blessing. Recognition can mean to accept the reality of something.
6 Because marriage is regarded and lifted up and taught as the norm in our teaching, as the strength of the order that establishes the foundation for family life, then instances of pastoral care might be used for the recognition of a publicly accountable lifelong monogamous same-sex relationship. Such a decision provides a more communal way to recognize same-sex couples among us and support them. I say that tacitly to "know" of them while not providing them recognition and a community that will act on their behalf while proclaiming a Christ who boldly acted on our sinful behalf to rescue us could also be seen as missing the mark. It could be seen as our passing them by in silence on the road as a Levite or priest headed to Jericho, these very ones who need, rather, a community to bind them up and accompany them. If we have been silently recognizing their presence among us while not allowing them to know of our recognition, let us allow them the opportunity for a public recognition that will help them with a pastoral and community witness to persevere in their relationship. Gay persons have shared with me that a public recognition would help them in upholding their commitment to the relationship. While we as ELCA members across this church may differ in our ability to value the recognition of such a relationship, we could value its lifelong monogamy as far better, safer, and kinder than lifelong promiscuity or lifelong wondering whether they are truly cherished as members within the community of the crucified Christ.
7 I say this church ought to continue to teach marriage as the norm and intent of God for creation. The estate of marriage of a man and woman norms a strong tree of life for the church and society, for the raising of children in faith, and I say that this particular tree, created and ordained by God is able to sustain also the instances of birds who make their nests in its branches, even up to 3%. The strength of the norm can hold up whatever may need shelter in its branches. With marriage remaining as what norms our understanding of family, we may be able to contain within the life of the church those instances for our baptized, active members where a monogamous lifelong relationship is being asked to be recognized, supported, and held publicly accountable within the strength of the Christian community. So I do not bless, but I do recognize the reality of brothers and sisters in the faith who may desire to be in a lifelong monogamous same-sex relationship.
8 What may be far more threatening to the strength of the tree is a divorce rate of 50% of marriages within the church. This is the very time we should consider how ineffective our ministry of marriage has been in a church that experiences a 50% divorce rate and work hard on our recovery of our theology of marriage and family with a renewal of ministry in this area.
Those who know me will recognize that this is a move for me. I don’t know how I would live this out should I be faced with the couple in front of me, but I believe that I should be so willing for the sake of my baptized gay sisters and brothers who are right now active within the life of this church seeking shelter from the world’s storms. Christ himself wants them to remain within the life of his church. I want them to know that the promise of baptism, long before they ever knew the circumstances of their sexuality, holds them far beyond their death; I want the rescue of Christ and the mark of Christ to be their sign even while they join us in struggling to be a light that shines to give glory to the Father. Luther wrote:
"It will be no small gain to a penitent to remember above all his baptism, and confidently calling to mind the divine promise which he has forsaken, acknowledge that promise before the Lord, rejoicing that he is still within the fortress of salvation, still within the ship of salvation, because he has been baptized. His heart will find wonderful comfort and will be encouraged to hope for mercy when he considers that the promise which God made to him, which cannot possibly lie is still unbroken and unchanged, and indeed, cannot be changed by sins, as Paul says, ‘If we are faithless, he remains faithful, for he cannot deny’ Himself. This truth of God, I say, will sustain him, so that if all else should fail, this truth, if he believe in it, will not fail him. In it the penitent has a shield against all assaults of the scornful enemy an answer to the sins that disturb his conscience an antidote for the dread of death and judgment and a comfort in every temptation… Namely this one truth—when he says: God is faithful in his promise and I receive his sign in baptism. If God is for me who is against me?"
It often takes the strongest promise of baptism to convince me that I remain under that promise, regardless of my sin known and unknown, as a servant of Christ and as a brother and sister in Christ.
Romans 14:4 says, "Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own Lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand." Then Paul writes in 14:10b, "For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of God."
I believe I would with fear and trembling tell my Lord that I upheld the norm of marriage for the ordering of the church and society, but in pastorally caring for those that he had marked with his cross and made a part of his crucified and resurrected life, there were instances when I recognized their special need and made the church a safe, supporting place for their circumstances in which to learn and grow in the life of Jesus Christ.
I join them with my own life that greatly misses the mark especially in the depths and intentions of my heart. As a Lutheran I always do better, meeting my fellow Lutherans kneeling at the communion rail seeking forgiveness rather than standing apart from Lutherans in my certain righteousness.
In my teaching of confirmation, I would not change in my teaching of the commandments. But, if asked, I would speak to what has been and is the norm of this church, marriage. I would speak to the orders of creation. Then I would speak to how we as the church recognize special circumstances beyond the norm such as divorce and same-sex relationships that call for pastoral care and individual counseling that can lead to a pastoral care response that can also call upon the congregation to support. I would speak to those who find themselves beyond the vows of marriage seeking to live now as faithfully as they can with the congregation around them.
The cross of Jesus is to carry the cross of another. This life is not only about bearing my cross; the cross of Jesus is bearing the cross of the other. Yet my Lord also bids me to take up my cross in all aspects of my life of discipleship, to recognize my need for rescuing from real powers of sin and evil, even as I seek to live as faithfully as I can, giving thanks, not as I ought, but as I am able.
So not in spite of Scripture or our Confessions, but in my understanding of them, I could, in principle, be ready to debate for and vote for a Recommendation One, that in principle, recognizes lifelong, monogamous, same-sex unions.
I am not in favor of then moving on to Recommendations 2, 3, and 4.
The Task Force wrote: "Without some provision for recognizing and supporting lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships, the task force believes that same-gender-oriented people cannot be held publicly accountable in the ways that are required of people holding the public offices of rostered ministry."
A thousand Lutherans at the Churchwide Assembly this August may vote for Recommendation One and initiate, in principle, a recognition for couples within our congregations.
But the Task Force again "believes that consensus does not exist in this church with regard to the matter of sexual intimacy between same-gender-oriented people."
We have to consider the 4.7 million Lutherans who may be waiting to hear the news of this "passed in principle" recognition of Recommendation One.
Recommendation One is a giant step as a decision by a church body in the midst of the world church and in the midst of a great number of our very own congregations. I will want to see whether the norm of marriage of husband and wife continues to be strongly embraced as our center and foundation to family life as we live within the language of our newly proposed social statement on human sexuality.
Recommendations 2, 3, and 4 do not, then, necessarily follow, nor are they mandated to follow quickly.
Before we would quickly as an assembly take the next steps to go toward rostered leaders, bound consciences, and structured flexibility, we must see first whether our whole life together—65 synods and over 10,000 congregations—will grow in consensus and begin to make provisions concerning Recommendation One in taking this first step and turning this new corner as a church together.
James Mauney is the bishop of the Virginia Synod of the ELCA.
1. Paul Hinlicky provides an insightful article, "Recognition, Not Blessing" in the Journal for Lutheran Ethics, August 2005.