Congregations as Communities of Moral Deliberation?

[1] It has been said that “May you live in interesting times” was an ancient Chinese curse. Surely ours qualify as “interesting times.” Difficulties surround us on international, national, regional, local, familial, and personal levels. The issues-the “war on terror,” the conflict in Iraq, the ongoing devastation of world and local hunger, the economic disparities between those who “have” and those who “have not,” the multi-faceted health care crisis in the United States, the families torn asunder by physical, emotional, and substance abuse and mental illness, to name a few-are complex. Some issues are primarily economic, some primarily political, some environmental, some military, some religious; most are complex in many dimensions simultaneously. Many believe that the complexity of these issues is intensified by the decay of civil, constructive, and moral discourse on international, national, and local levels.

[2] One of the most issues is the status and rights of homosexual persons in the United States. Various dimensions are increasingly in public view, from secular discussions of the status of gay marriages in San Francisco and recent court decisions in Massachusetts to discussions within various religious denominations regarding the status of gay marriages and whether or not gay persons might be ordained. The threatened separations of the Episcopalians and Methodists, and discussions within Roman Catholicism regarding whether or not Catholic public officials who support gay rights should be able to receive communion testify to the intensity of the debates.

[3] The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) is no stranger to the controversies. The 2001 Churchwide Assembly adopted resolutions that called the ELCA to develop a social statement on sexuality, and to study homosexuality with reference to blessing of same-sex unions and the ordination, consecration, and commissioning of people in committed same sex unions. The latter two issues will be taken up again at the 2005 Churchwide Assembly; the target date for submitting the social statement is the 2007 Churchwide Assembly. Journey Together Faithfully, Part Two: The Church and Homosexuality, produced by the Task Force For ELCA Studies on Sexuality, was developed as a resource for congregations throughout the ELCA who wish to study and reflect on these issues prior to the upcoming Churchwide Assemblies.

[4] Journey Together seems to assume that ELCA congregations are-or ought to be-“communities of moral deliberation.” Viewing congregations as “communities of moral deliberation” is a concept that has been developed in preceding ELCA documents, including “The Church in Society: A Lutheran Perspective” and “Talking Together as Christians about Tough Social Issues” This essay will review the concept of congregations as “communities of moral deliberation” as developed in these documents.

[5] The intent of this essay is not to argue pro or con with respect to the blessing of same-sex unions and the rostering of people in committed same-sex unions. Rather, the intent is to provide material that could serve as a basis for reflection on ELCA congregations’ attempts to be “communities of moral deliberation” with regard to the resolutions regarding same-sex unions to be addressed at the 2005 Churchwide Assembly.

The Church in Society: A Lutheran Perspective

[6] “The Church in Society: A Lutheran Perspective” was the first social statement of the newly constituted ELCA, approved at the second biennial ELCA Churchwide Assembly in 1991. The statement “sets forth affirmations and commitments to guide [the ELCA’s] participation in society.” It seeks to “be true” to the ELCA’s “mandate to confess and teach both law and Gospel as the whole Word of the Triune God,” thereby witnessing “to the living God-Father, Son, and Holy Spirit-who in love creates, judges, and preserves the world and redeems, sanctifies, and brings it to fulfillment in God’s reign”(Introduction). There are six affirmations and three commitments developed in the document. Moral deliberation is developed as both an affirmation and a commitment of the ELCA.

[7] The affirmation entitled “A Community of Moral Deliberation” presents a view of deliberation that acknowledges unity and diversity within the ELCA; gives attention to God’s Word, God’s world, and the relationships between the two; and relies upon revelation, reason, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit:

Christians fulfill their vocation diversely and are rich in the variety of the gifts of the spirit. Therefore, they often disagree passionately on the kind of responses they make to social questions. United with Christ and all believers in baptism, Christians welcome and celebrate their diversity. Because they share common convictions of faith, they are free, indeed obligated, to deliberate together on the challenges they face in the world.
Deliberation in the church gives attention both to God’s Word and God’s world, as well as to the relationship between them. The church sees the world in light of God’s Word, and it grasps God’s Word from its context in the world. The church must rely upon God’s revelation, God’s gift of reason, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit (I.F).
[8] Scripture is “the normative source in [the ELCA’s] deliberation,” but because of “the diversity in Scripture” and “the contemporary world’s distance from the biblical world” it is “necessary to scrutinize the [Scriptural] texts carefully in their own setting and to interpret them faithfully in the context of today.” This approach to Scripture is “guided” by “the ecumenical creeds and the Lutheran confessions,” and “instructed” by the “church’s history and traditions.” The church’s deliberation, “transformed by faith,” draws upon “God-given abilities of human beings to will, to reason, and to feel.” As such the ELCA “is open to learn from the experience, knowledge, and imagination of all people in order to have the best possible information and understanding of today’s world.” To “act justly and effectively, [the ELCA] needs to analyze social and environmental issues critically and to probe the reasons why the situation is as it is” (I.F).

[9] The ELCA’s deliberation “should include people-either in person or through their writing or other expressions-with different life-experiences, perspectives, and interests” including “those who feel and suffer with the issue; those whose interests or security are at stake; pastors, bishops, theologians, ethicists, and other teachers in this church; advocates; and experts in the social and natural sciences, the arts, and the humanities.” As a “community of moral deliberation” the ELCA “seeks to ‘discern what is the will of God-what is good and acceptable and perfect’ (Rom 12:2)” (I.F).

[10] The “commitment” entitled “Deliberating on Social Questions” opens with the following: “The ELCA commits itself to foster moral deliberation on social questions” (II.C).

[11] The statement continues in telling fashion, quoted verbatim here: “…this church shall: be a community where open, passionate, and respectful deliberation on challenging and controversial issues of contemporary society is expected and encouraged; engage those of diverse perspectives, classes, genders, ages, races, and cultures in the deliberation process so that each of our limited horizons might be expanded and the witness of the body of Christ in the world enhanced; draw upon the resources of faith and reason-on Scripture, church history, knowledge and personal experience-to learn and to discern how to respond to contemporary challenges in light of God’s Word; address through deliberative processes the issues faced by the people of God in order to equip them in their discipleship and citizenship in the world; arrive at positions to guide its corporate witness through participatory processes of moral deliberation; and seek to contribute toward the upbuilding of the common good and the revitalizing of public life through open and inclusive processes of deliberation” (II.C).

[12] The statement closes with a brief section entitled “God’s Faithful Love.” Here it is noted that the witness of the ELCA “is a response to God’s faithful love received in Word and Sacraments,” and that “[w]e in the ELCA set forth these affirmations and commitments in society with the prayer that our words and deeds may be earthen vessels that witness to the power of the cross” (III).

Talking Together as Christians About Tough Social Issues

[13] The 1997 ELCA Churchwide Assembly was forward looking, and adopted “Initiatives to Prepare for a New Century.” The third of the seven initiatives, entitled “Witness to God’s Action in the World,” encouraged congregations to develop and share with the world a “new vision” of “community life.” Part of the “new vision” was the ability of congregations to “address and deliberate on pressing social and ethical questions in a spirit of civility, drawing upon Scripture, our theological tradition, contemporary knowledge, and our varying experiences…” In response to this initiative, and to facilitate this “new vision,” the Division for Church and Society of the ELCA published “Talking Together as Christians About Tough Social Issues.” “Talking Together” gives further insight into congregations as “communities of moral discernment.”

[14] “Talking Together” acknowledges that disagreement on controversial issues can, and sometimes does, threaten and divide congregations, but points out that this doesn’t necessarily have to be the case:

Disagreements can become destructive when congregations don’t have the attitudes, beliefs, knowledge, skills, and behavior to talk together constructively. However, if those who shape the life of a congregation give clear, reassuring signals that “we talk about matters like that here,” and if the congregation has developed the habit and learned practices for doing so, this begins to feel like a natural part of what it means to be a church. When issues arise, they must be talked about, and these congregations feel that they can talk about them (pp. 2-3).

Such constructive conversations: involve “respectful yet passionate dialogue from the perspective of the faith [members] share” that seeks to “understand and clarify the issue, its causes, dimensions, and consequences”; account for “personal and community experiences of the issue, as well as Scripture, church tradition and teachings, human knowledge and reason”; and end in a discernment of what ought to be done. Constructive conversations represent serious dialogue “about what really matters in the life of the Christian community and in the life of the world” and are both “part of the public ministry of a congregation” and “of the congregation’s witness in the world” (p.3).

[15] Why should congregations participate in conversation about tough social issues? “Talking Together” asserts that this is part of the vocation of the Church:

As the Church, we believe and proclaim that God is active in all realms of life-including the social, economic, and political. God preserves creation, orders society, and promotes justice in a broken world. Faith active in love seeking justice in the world is a single, unified vocation of the church. God continually pulls us out of our private lives and into the public-where we participate in a world in common with those who are different from us (p.4).
In this sense moral deliberation in congregations is quite different from “democratic discussion” or “civil conversation.” The point of conversation in the church is to “discern what God may be up to, how Scripture or Christian tradition inform the discussion, or what God may be calling people to understand, say, or do…” (p.5).
[16] “Talking Together” asserts that the Holy Spirit is active in this process, enabling diverse people to communicate in ways “beyond the usual barriers.” These ways challenge individuals, but also hold the promise of deepening our relationships with each other and with God; ultimately these challenges point to the transforming powers of God:

The Spirit continues to do so in ways that strengthen and deepen who we are in relation to God and one another. Those who are “other” from us challenge us when we mistake our reason and experience as being the case for all people. With new eyes we begin to see how God is active in the world-in the people, the social issues, ethical challenges, the suffering, and the delights that we discover there. We find that our relationship with God grows stronger, our relationship with people in our congregation grows deeper, and our lives and the life of our congregation are transformed. As these things continue to happen, God works to transform the world around us.
A Context for Journey Together Faithfully

[17] Read in this way “Church in Society” and “Talking Together” provide a context for “Journey Together.” That is, the ELCA is “committed to foster moral deliberation” about “tough social issues” in its congregations and through the rest of the church structure. This commitment is in response to a call from God, a part of the vocation of the church, and is a “manifestation of faith active in love seeking justice in the world.” Moral deliberation recognizes unity and diversity within the ELCA, is concerned with God’s Word and God’s world and the relationship between the two, and relies on Scripture, revelation, and reason to “discern the will of God.” It is to be an inclusive process, one that displays “a new vision of community life” in which challenging issues are approached through habitual, learned practices as part of public witness and ministry. This process acknowledges the destructive risks inherent in such discussions, but is also open to the potential to deepen and broaden our relationships to each other and to God, and points to the transforming power of God.

[18] There are many challenges to attaining such a vision. Not the least of these is the distinct possibility that not all are comfortable with the idea that congregations ought to be such “communities of moral discernment.” Even for those who do agree in principle there are many reasonable questions to raise. Does such a vision require special training for pastoral and lay leaders so that they can facilitate constructive-and avoid destructive-deliberation? If so, who will do such training, and who will pay for it? Does moral deliberation of this kind require an inordinate amount of time and resources, both at congregational levels and within the ELCA as a whole (consider, for example, the amount of time and resources the ELCA and local congregations have devoted to Journey Together)? Who will decide, on congregational and churchwide levels, what issues will become the focus of moral deliberation? What is to be done in congregations where attempted moral deliberation is destructive rather than constructive?

[19] None of these questions necessarily abrogate the idea of congregations as “communities of moral discernment.” Indeed, the fact that congregations within the ELCA are currently undergoing such a process with Journey Together suggests that it may be possible. At a minimum, congregations in which study has occurred will have a wealth of knowledge and experience to share regarding the risks and benefits of communal moral discernment, and the ELCA as a whole will approach the upcoming Churchwide Assemblies with a significant amount of input into an important social issue. And, perhaps, at least some persons and congregations will have reached deeper understandings of the issues, themselves, and each other, or at least are more knowledgeable and respectful of their differences. And, perhaps, the process as a whole may help the ELCA better discern the will of God on these issues.

[20] Journey Together can be seen as an opportunity to explore not only issues surrounding sexuality and homosexuality, but also as an opportunity to explore congregations and the Church as a whole as “communities of moral discernment.” The next few years, while challenging, also hold within them the possibilities of renewal and transformation. At the least, the next few years will be “interesting times”; whether or not this proves to be a “curse” or a “blessing in disguise” is yet to be discovered.