The role and office of the bishop is a subtle though ever-present part of the current debate regarding the Sexuality Statement and Recommendation--further proof that what is at stake for the ELCA this summer is not just moral teaching but ecclesiology. It began when, at the last assembly, our bishops were asked to "exercise restraint" in their dealings with sexually active homosexual clergy...
The role and office of the bishop is a subtle though ever-present part of the current debate regarding the Sexuality Statement and Recommendation--further proof that what is at stake for the ELCA this summer is not just moral teaching but ecclesiology.
It began when, at the last assembly, our bishops were asked to "exercise restraint" in their dealings with sexually active homosexual clergy. Now appeal for change is being made on the grounds that "Some congregations, pastors, and bishops in the ELCA are currently acting against or are unwilling to support or enforce current church policy that bars public ministry to people in lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships" (Report and Recommendation, Dissenting Position 2, 783-5). The Recommendation, if all four items passed, would serve to "protect" (!) bishops (along with candidacy committees, congregations, etc.) from the consequences of their choices (Report and Recommendation, 496), whichever side they're on.
In other words, for the past several years, and now possibly into the future, our bishops are politely being asked not to exercise their chief functions: guarding the deposit of the faith through sound teaching and discipline.
And yet, for all this, our bishops seem to be trying. The problem is that no one is listening. At the last gathering of the ELCA Conference of Bishops, they considered the question of the percentage required to pass the four items in the Report and Recommendation at the upcoming assembly. Out of 59 voting bishops, an astounding 44 voted in favor of changing the number to a required majority of 2/3. Undoubtedly, as those charged with exercising the "ministry of unity" in our church, they realized that any less conclusive of a vote in the ELCA would have devastating consequences. (Anyone paying the slightest bit of attention to American politics in the last dozen years should know that already.) And yet, when this information came before the ELCA Church Council, it was cast aside, with an overwhelming majority voting in favor of keeping it at a simple majority. Of course, the bishops' vote had no "binding" character. It was simply "advisory." The "advice" of the bishops apparently cuts little ice with the Church Council. Which begs the question of what, after all, our bishops are for. Perhaps this means the Church Council has already decided for the ELCA the place of bishops in our ecclesiology.
That of course brings to mind our presiding bishop, Mark Hanson, who is also the president of the Lutheran World Federation--certainly a "minister of unity" if ever there was one on the global Lutheran scene. Bishop Hanson must know how dangerous this ELCA decision will be for the LWF. He must know how much trouble there already is in the Scandinavian countries (where, it is important to know, the fact of the state church is what prompted the ordination and marriage of homosexuals--it was a civil matter of legal discrimination, not chiefly a theological decision--which bars any facile comparisons to the American situation of separate church and state). Bishop Hanson must know how in Germany and elsewhere in Europe the discussion is being suppressed for fear of what it will do the unity of the church. He must know how profound is the opposition to this change in the rest of the Lutheran world, among those non-Western, non-white peoples that our church leaders otherwise profess to love and admire with such great frequency. He must know the feelings of betrayal and division that will ensue. So in a sense his office is also up for a vote this summer. Will he really be a bishop? Will he teach us rightly and lead us wisely? Will he keep us accountable to the church catholic, around the world and across the years?
Meanwhile, we have to ask ourselves: do we really want to put our ecclesiology to a vote this way?