Bishop Mark Hanson of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), of which I am a part, sent a pastoral letter to all leaders of the denomination this past week.
Chris Duckworth reacts here. (The linked post contains a link to Hanson's original letter.) Chris's point about the difference between basic baptismal unity, on the one hand, and confessional unity, on the other, is right on.
I have deep respect for Bishop Hanson. But I think that Chris is right in saying that the bishop's letter misses the point about what's at stake in the August churchwide assembly's scheduled votes on a new sexuality statement and the sexuality task force's recommendations that ELCA congregations be allowed to depart from past practices on the ordination of practicing homosexuals in committed relationships and on the sanctioning of committed homosexual relationships. Basic baptismal unity is not sufficient to bind together a denomination which claims to have a common, specific understanding of the Christian faith.
The proposed changes, in spite of the facile arguments of the sexuality task force that their recommendations deal only with ethics and not theology, would be major and potentially disruptive of our unity.
The option left to individual congregations to decide what they will do in practice seems a shrewd political move, allowing congregations to agree to disagree. It may therefore appeal to our American penchant for individualism.
The sexuality task force seems to be betting that their approach will placate enough people to keep from tearing the ELCA apart. They may be right, at least organizationally.
But with the adoption of these recommendations, will we lack theological and confessional clarity if the assembly adopts the recommended policies? I think so. What good will our unity be then?
I favor, as I think all Christians should, full civil rights for all people. But the recommendations before the assembly have nothing to do with civil rights. They deal with theology, with what we say about what God has revealed to the world, with the exercise of what is known as the "office of the keys," the proclamation of forgiveness or condemnation on behalf of God. Whatever one's position on the recommendations, one must concede, I think, such sanctioned changes cannot be papered over by appeals to baptismal unity. The world will rightly want to know, "What exactly do Lutherans believe about the Sixth Commandment?" These proposed policies, which venture far from 2000 years of Christian belief, won't provide an answer.