Over 1000 voting members from across the 65 synods of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America gathered here in Minneapolis for the 11th Churchwide Assembly (CWA).
Bishops of the church actually joined with ELCA Church Council, synod vice presidents and selected churchwide staff members for some pre-assembly meetings on Sunday (August 16) and Monday morning (August 17). In addition to hearing an update from the Board of Pensions regarding ways the stock market downturn have affected pension fund performance, the group heard a financial report from ELCA Treasurer Christina Jackson-Skelton. I was pleased to learn that our NW MN Synod was one of 17 (out of 65) synods that have remitted more mission support dollars to the ELCA thus far in 2009 than we did in the same time period of 2008.
Following a celebrative opening service of Holy Communion and supper, the first plenary session of the assembly convened at 7 p.m. on Monday in the Minneapolis Convention Center. Early in the session we learned that nearly half (48.97%) of voting members were attending their first CWA. Twin Cities host bishops Craig Johnson and Peter Rogness welcomed the CWA participants and announced that, as a welcome gift to all the visiting Lutherans, the two metro synods were purchasing and planting 66 trees in the cities in honor of the 65 synods and the churchwide organization.
The major business item on Monday evening was an amendment to the Rules of Organization proposed by Allegheny Synod Bishop Greg Pile that would have required a 2/3 majority (super-majority) to approve the Recommendation on Ministry Policies scheduled for consideration on Friday. Many folks lined up at the green (agree) and red (disagree) microphones, and a lengthy discussion of the merits of the Pile amendment ensued.
I had a chance to speak in favor of the Pile amendment, and here is the substance of what I said:
"Over a year ago—long before we knew just what ministry policy changes might be proposed—the NW MN Synod Council voted to ask the ELCA Church Council to propose a 2/3 voting requirement on any changes in ministry policies we might consider at this assembly. We took this action because we sensed that if policies are changed, a 2/3 vote will indicate how seriously and carefully we have addressed this important topic.
"Let me also offer an opinion regarding the apparent contradiction between requiring a 2/3 vote of this assembly—even though the policies in question were originally approved by the ELCA Church Council by simple majority votes.
"The behaviors that are either affirmed or forbidden for ministers in Vision and Expectations and Definitions and Guidelines for Discipline did not emerge out of the clear blue when the Church Council drafted and approved these documents. These behaviors, rather, represent the 'wisdom of the ages'—articulated again and again in our Bible, our creeds, our confessions and the ministerial standards to predecessor church bodies.
"To cite a couple of non-sexual examples: Lutherans in North America didn’t start to require their ministers not to steal or not to break pastoral confidences in the early 1990s, because the ELCA Church Council approved a couple of documents. The force of those documents, comes not just from a vote by the ELCA Church Council—but rather, the force of these documents arises from the time-honored, faithful wisdom embodied in those documents. We will do well, if we wish to amend any of the substantial content of these documents, to hold ourselves to the highest level of consensus in decision-making."
After about an hour of debate the amendment finally came to a vote, and it was defeated by a vote of 436 in favor of the amendment, 584 opposed. To many of us this vote seemed to be an "early indicator" of the way things might go on subsequent votes--on the proposed social statement on human sexuality and the Recommendation on Ministry Policies.