As I See It
Is Theological Discussion Possible in the Metropolitan Chicago Synod?
By Frank C. Senn
Let me answer the question in the title in the affirmative. We have had theological discussions in the Metropolitan Chicago Synod. One major discussion concerned the ecumenical proposals before the ELCA in 1997. I remember several hundred people making it through a Thursday night rainstorm to Carthage College in 1996 to engage in a discussion of full communion issues with Walter Bouman and Robert Jenson. A few years later we held a symposium at the synod assembly on “Called to Common Mission” involving an ELCA bishop, an LSTC professor, an Episcopal ecumenical officer, and a Lutheran ecumenical officer. Again several hundred people were engaged in the dialogue with presenters who clearly represented various points of view. So theological discussion is possible in our synod.
But not, apparently, when it comes to the gay agenda. For one thing, this agenda has been framed as a justice issue rather than a theological issue. So it has been commandeered by the synod’s Justice Team. Yet instead of working to get this synod to lobby for the legal recognition of same-sex unions in the State of Illinois, the Justice Team has worked to get this church to change its teachings and practice. That moves into the area of theology. Yet instead of promoting theological discussions dealing with such issues as the authority and interpretation of Scripture or the doctrine of marriage, on which various “sides” could present their arguments, we have had teach-ins. Teach-ins were methods used in the radical movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s to promote ideological agendas. Other synods in the ELCA have offered opportunities for genuine dialogue, much like the discussions we had on the ecumenical issues, but not the Metropolitan Chicago Synod.
Other synods in the ELCA have allowed voting members to express themselves on the three recommendations of the ELCA Task Force on Human Sexuality being sent to the Churchwide Assembly by the Churchwide Council. They have taken votes not only on the three recommendations but also on the two opposing positions — i.e. that homosexual unions and clergy living in committed homosexual relationships should not be tolerated in the ELCA and that homosexual unions should be blessed and no obstacle should be placed on candidates for ordination who are living in such relationships if all other standards in Vision and Expectations are being met. Discussion preceding the votes allowed different views to be expressed on very complex issues. Our synod is apparently so far beyond these recommendations that we voted to ask the ELCA to adopt as policy “that for the sake of outreach, ministry, mission and prayerful support, a congregation may choose to give its pastor or pastors discretion to perform services of blessing of committed same-gender relationships” and to ask the Divisions for Ministry and Congregational Life and the Conference of Bishops to develop a rite of blessing for same-gender couples; and also to remove barriers to the ordination of candidates living in such relationships.
The fact that these resolutions passed with commanding majorities does not mean that there are no arguments to be made in opposition. But the forum for such discussion was not provided. The presenters of these resolutions organized teach-ins on their resolutions which left a few minutes for people in the audience to ask questions or make brief statements. But forty minutes of this kind of a forum does not compare with two to three hours of theological discussion provided on the ecumenical issues in 1996 and 1999. Even though 30 minutes and 15 minutes were allotted respectively for discussion of these resolutions on the floor of the assembly, this was hardly the place to raise important theological questions.
But questions can be raised. For example, as an argument in favor of the resolution asking the ELCA to develop rites and resources for blessing same-sex unions, the sponsors noted in their whereases that the Church has blessed all kinds of things (and provided a long list). To be sure, we don’t vote on whereases. But those whereases contain the rationales for the resolutions. So in a genuine discussion it would have been germane to note that the Church has sometimes blessed things that it ought not to have blessed (e.g. battleships); that the Reformation was very concerned about the blessing of inanimate things (a source of superstition) and generally abolished such items that we now take for granted as palms on Palm Sunday and ashes on Ash Wednesday; and that when we do bless things it is really a petition for a salutary use. My family of origin prayed every day “God bless this food to our use and ourselves to your service.” In the same way we might bless water to remind us of our baptism, houses to serve as homes in which Christian virtues are practiced, Christmas creches to remind us of Immanuel — God with us, quilts to keep refugees warm, etc.
But when human beings are blessed it is specifically to proclaim the promise of God about the status upon which they are entering. This is usually a status instituted by God for humanity generally (e.g. marriage, family life) or instituted by Christ for the church specifically (e.g. baptism, ordination). How do same-sex unions meet the qualification for this kind of a blessing? And if same-sex unions are not blessings in this sense, what kind of blessings are they? If they are blessings in this sense, are we to construe such unions as marriage in the Biblical sense? Is marriage to be restricted, as in Genesis, to male and female — opposite sexes — becoming one flesh and, according to God’s will, being fruitful and multiplying? Finally, a pastoral question: is blessing same-sex unions the only way to provide pastoral care for gay people in our congregations? Are there other practices that provide at least an affirmation of a relationship by the community of faith even though a divine endorsement seems ambiguous at best?
Have we reached a point in which we simply take a vote on matters of faith and practice and move on? What becomes of the sense of the first synod in Acts 15 that their decision “seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us?” That kind of decision requires consensus. Consensus is achieved not by silencing the opposition but by talking until enough agreement is reached that those who may still have reservations can nevertheless live with the decision. If that consensus is not everything that everyone wants, it is at least enough to keep people together on broad areas of agreement. But to live with significant disagreement on an issue of this importance is not really possible in the long run. If a church which purports to base its life on biblical and confessional authority must agree to disagree on what the Bible and the Confessions teach, the issue on which it disagrees will ultimately become church-dividing.
Is theological discussion possible in the Metropolitan Chicago Synod? It had better be possible, on this issue especially. That’s the way I see it.