A Preliminary, Quick Review of the ELCA’s Draft Social Statement on Human Sexuality

[1] March 13, 2008, the public release date of the ELCA’s Draft Social Statement on Human Sexuality, was not a date I had noted on my calendar. I confess that I was not paying much attention to the release of this draft, at least until two weeks ago when I was asked to be one of a number of folks who responded to it.

[2] That “void” from my life is a bit surprising considering my life until coming to this call. I served for nearly 14 years as ELCA churchwide communication director, spanning the years of 1992 – 2006. During those years the issue of the ELCA’s conversations about sexuality and, especially, homosexuality, were a big part of my calendar and life. I first “lived through” the release of a possible first draft of a proposed social statement on human sexuality in 1993. That time is the topic for another essay, but “lived through” is about the best term I can think of for those tough days. Then, I helped lead the process of communicating the ELCA’s various attempts at making statements on sexuality and, especially, homosexuality, culminating in the work of the ELCA sexuality task force for the 2005 ELCA churchwide assembly.

[3] However, this “void” is more than a change in call and even more than being senior pastor of a large ELCA congregation. It is, more importantly, because the controversial issues surrounding sexuality in the ELCA are no longer part of my everyday life. They just are not on the agenda of many of the members of this congregation.

[4] Trinity Lutheran Church in Lansdale, Pennsylvania is the largest Lutheran congregation east of the Mississippi River and the largest “Reconciling in Christ” congregation in North America. But, before you assume that we are a large, eastern “liberal” place, I should add that Montgomery County, where Lansdale is located, is a long time Republican area. I assume that most of Trinity’s members voted for President Bush in 2004.

[5] But, I also believe that most of Trinity’s members would not vote again for President Bush and that most would feel that Bush has led us in the wrong direction in many areas, including the War in Iraq, the economy and homosexual rights. Don’t get me wrong, I suspect that, faced with a vote to legalize gay marriage, many Trinity members would not vote for such a change. However, for the majority of folks here this is not a “front burner” issue. I believe that they think that the President has missed more important issues. When asked about homosexual relationships and even gay marriage, I believe most of Trinity’s members would say that this is an individual choice and issue, something about which the government should not be too concerned.

[6] That all said, I welcomed the chance to read and review this first draft.

[7] I remember Phil Harris, the ELCA’s attorney, sharing an old joke that goes something like this – Question: “What do you call 1000 dead lawyers on the ocean floor? Answer: A good start.” (You can replace “lawyers” with your favorite group to dump on!)

[8] In all seriousness, this statement IS a good start. It grounds our discussion of sexuality in the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions. I really liked the introductory statement that “This social statement addresses the question: What does it mean for us as sexual creatures to love our neighbors as ourselves and thus fulfill God’s law of love in this time and society?” (Draft, line 13-15) I believe the draft addresses that question well. I also liked the early admission that this statement, and I would add, any statement “does not offer once-and-for-all answers for all contemporary questions.” Again, the draft lives up to that affirmation, offering more questions than answers in true Lutheran form!

[9] I like what is said about Scripture – “Scripture cannot be used in isolation as the norm for Christian life and the source of knowledge for the exercise of moral judgment.” (417-18) This, of course, applies to much more than just our conversations about sexuality. I also like the emphasis on family and the attempt to redefine family in terms of the 21st century when families come in all shapes and sizes.

[10] Living in a congregation where protection of our children has been more than an item of casual discussion, I applaud the draft’s work on “Protecting children and youth in and for trusting relationships.” (1117) I have found this to be a very important and potent issue in this congregation, as I suspect it is in many others.

[11] The draft is very Lutheran when it takes a middle road, so to speak, on the issues around homosexuality and the church. I think its writers are correct to say that the ELCA “does not have consensus regarding loving and committed same-gender relationships.” While I agree with this as a churchwide statement, I do need to point out again that this is not an issue in the congregation I serve. Here, it appears to me, people are ready to affirm any “loving and committed relationship.” In this young congregation (average age is 35) many folks are waiting for the ELCA to catch up to the 21st century reality of widespread acceptance of homosexuality.

[12] Of course, I have a few concerns about the draft:

* It is too long, way too long.

* It reads like it was written by a theologian working with a committee. It desperately needs an editor.

* Some of the language is more than awkward. For example, the term “this church” is used throughout when I believe other words like “the ELCA” would read more easily.

* I always ask the audience question and, I believe, that is a fair question to ask about this draft: Who is the audience for this statement? If it is to be congregation members for youth and adult study, that should guide the use of language throughout.

* I found the criticism of sexuality in the media a bit much. Not that it is an incorrect criticism, but it is a narrow one. It is easy to criticize the media, especially television and film, about sexual content. But, our record supporting programming and film that takes a different view is spotty at best. There is a lot of inappropriate sexual content in the media because people watch and read it! If we want something different, we need to support programming that affirms more appropriate content. I hope the next draft might reflect a call to our members to support programming with a more positive view of sexuality.

* While I certainly agree with the draft’s statement “This church does not favor or give approval to cohabitation outside of marriage,” I also need to share what was obvious in my first call in 1976 and continues to be obvious today: Many, if not most, of the couples who came to me in 1976 and come to me today for marriage in the church were and are already living together! That is a reality that, I believe, no ELCA statement is going to change or even affect. My past congregation experience tells me that this is not a new problem. I guess what I am trying to say is that, for society, this has been a non-issue for many years and we must face that reality.

[13] I hope these preliminary comments are helpful to the task force in its continued discussion and subsequent drafts. Thank you for the opportunity to share them.

[14] One additional comment: Many of my key younger members and leaders are waiting for the ELCA to change its policies on ordination to allow homosexual persons in committed relationships to be on “this church’s” roster. These folks were disappointed that the 2007 ELCA churchwide assembly did not make this change. They love the ELCA and our congregation, but they also have waited a long time for this change. They are not threatening to leave the ELCA over this issue, but I know that they hope and pray for a change soon in these standards. I know this was not part of this draft, but it is a related issue that obviously continues to be before us. We anxiously await the task force’s supplementary recommendations on that issue that will come to the 2009 ELCA churchwide assembly!