The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


December 14, 2009

ELCA Northeastern Iowa Synod Council, Bishop Respond to Assembly Actions

The bishop of the Northeastern Iowa Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) declined to rule on the validity of resolutions of the synod council regarding the sexuality decisions of the 2009 ELCA Churchwide Assembly.  The Rev. Steven L. Ullestad wrote in a Dec. 4 e-mail to the synod that the resolutions "test the implications of the churchwide decisions for our synod."
Ullestad added he will help facilitate conversation in the synod about the resolutions, leading up to the synod's next assembly in June 2010.
The Northeastern Iowa Synod Council adopted the resolutions last month.  Voting 10 to 5, with one abstention, a resolution on the "bound conscience" of the synod said that the ELCA's current ministry polices, adopted in 1990, "shall remain in effect" for the synod.  The council encouraged the synod's candidacy committee and the synod bishop to abide by those standards until the synod's next assembly.  The action also recommended that the 2010 assembly adopt a continuing resolution that the synod will continue to abide by the policies adopted in 1990.
Current ELCA policy says that "ordained ministers who are homosexual in their self-understanding are expected to abstain from homosexual sexual relationships."  The 2009 Churchwide Assembly directed changes to ELCA ministry policies, creating the possibility for people in publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships to serve as clergy and professional lay workers.  The assembly also adopted by a two-thirds vote a social statement on human sexuality.
Some in the ELCA do not agree with those decisions, most often citing their views of Biblical authority as the reason.
A second resolution adopted by the synod council, 8 to 6 with two abstentions, repudiates the decisions of the assembly to adopt the new ministry policies and the social statement.  It calls those actions "violations of the Confession of Faith, Chapter 2 of the ELCA Constitution."  The council also asked the ELCA Church Council to "repudiate" the assembly's actions, "and begin the process to overturn these decisions at the 2011 Churchwide Assembly."
The Rev. Marshall E. Hahn, synod secretary and pastor of Marion Lutheran Church and Norway Lutheran Church, both near St. Olaf, Iowa, brought the two proposals to the synod council.  Hahn was a voting member at the churchwide assembly. In an interview with the ELCA News Service, he noted that the bound conscience resolution cites several past actions of the synod assembly.  The churchwide assembly materials, he said, "emphasize respecting the bound conscience of the people of the church," including synods, Hahn said.  The assembly also said it would allow "structured flexibility" in decision-making for approving or not approving a candidate for ministry or extending or not extending call to a person in a publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationship.
The synod resolution quoted the pre-assembly report, stating: "If structured flexibility were added to the process, this assumption would still protect any congregation, candidacy committee, synod or bishop from having to violate bound conscience by approving, calling, commissioning, consecrating or ordaining anyone in a publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous same-gender relationship."
Hahn argues that the basis for the second resolution is the concept that traditional marriage -- between a man and a woman -- and publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, committed same-gender relationships, are treated as equally valid.  There is no "clear and compelling evidence from Scripture for doing that," he said.
"Without showing a clear, compelling reason for doing so, we've changed what is in our confessions, our confession of faith and Scripture," Hahn said. "That violates our commitment as stated in our confession of faith."
ELCA Secretary David D. Swartling acknowledged receipt of the resolutions and said they will be addressed by the ELCA Church Council at its next meeting in April 2010.  "Any response now is premature," he said in a statement to the ELCA News Service.
Swartling expressed concern, however, that the resolutions as worded, appear to conflict with the Constitution, Bylaws, and Continuing Resolutions of the ELCA.  "Where authorized by our governing documents, the Churchwide Assembly establishes churchwide policy," he said. "Therefore, neither a synod council nor the Church Council can 'repudiate' an authorized action of the Churchwide Assembly."  Synods are welcome to submit resolutions or memorials asking the 2011 Churchwide Assembly to revisit the issue of ministry policies, or to amend or rescind them, he said.
Policy documents implementing the actions of the Churchwide Assembly on issues related to official church rosters are in the process of being prepared. They will be reviewed by the ELCA Conference of Bishops and considered by the Church Council in April, Swartling said.
"I anticipate that these documents will incorporate flexibility in the candidacy and call processes, and we invite input from and conversation with synods about them.  However, once adopted, they become the policy of this church, and a synod cannot impose a previous policy on its clergy and congregations that has been superseded," Swartling stated. 
Drafts of the policy documents will be available at http://www.elca.org/ministrypolicies on the ELCA Web site. They include "Vision and Expectations," which addresses standards for conduct by professional leaders on official church rosters and "Definitions and Guidelines for Discipline," which establishes standards for discipline.
In his letter, Ullestad said he would not rule on the resolutions because "it is the calling of the people of God, and not the bishop or Conference of Bishops to determine the ethics of the church."
"That is why we engage the whole church in the development of social statements and have votes by those who have been elected by the people, the laity and pastors of the churchwide assembly and synod council in order to determine the policies of the church," he wrote.  The presiding bishop, synod bishop and units of the churchwide organization have no legislative authority in this regard, he added.
Ullestad said his role will be to work with the synod to engage in conversation about the resolutions, remind members of Lutheran theology and the implications for the eight commandment (that prohibits bearing false witness against one's neighbor), and "the powerful witness of our oneness in Christ in the midst of difficult and challenging times."

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