Wednesday, August 19, 2009

ELCA Churchwide Assembly--Wednesday

The morning plenary session led off with the first ballot for Vice President of the ELCA, a position currently held by Mr. Carlos Pena of Texas. Although Mr. Pena received 607 votes (686 were needed for election on the first ballot), we will need to take a second ballot on this key lay, "volunteer" position when we re-convene on Thursday>

The new president of the Lutheran Youth Organization, and the 21 participants in the Youth Convocation that is going on concurrently with the CWA did great work greeting the assembly--always a bright spot on the agenda. Bishop Susan Johnson of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada greeted the assembly, inviting us all to join in a wonderfully slow and soft singing of the Doxology (great harmony in this vast assembly hall).

Two of the better presentations this morning were the stirring words of greeting from U.S. Navy Chaplain Harry Griffith and ELCA Secretary, David Swartling. Describing the Office of the Secretary as the "oil in the engine of the ELCA," Secretary Swartling showed a map outlining his state-by-state travels in his first two years as ELCA Secretary---from subzero temps in Fargo to Houston at 110 degrees!

The bulk of the afternoon session focused on discussion of and amendments to the proposed social statement, Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust. By my count three (mainly editorial) amendments to the document were passed, and three amendments were defeated.

The amendment that received the most debate was one proposed by Virginia Synod Bishop James Mauney. He moved amend lines 620ff. to read (describing our historic position on marriage) "...The historic Christian tradition and the Lutheran Confessions have taught and recognized marriage as a normative, lifelong covenant between a man and a woman... (the amendment adding the words "have taught" and "normative, lifelong.") The Mauney amendment would have also added the following sentence at line 628: "Marriage thus provides the possibility for the added blessing of children and the joy and responsibility for raising them in the faith."

Much of the criticism of the Mauney amendment focused on that last sentence which some in the assembly "heard" as being critical of or exclusionary toward married couples who for whatever reason can't have children....or of situations where children are born outside of marriage. In the end the assembly defeated this amendment by a vote of 432 in favor, 563 opposed.

Once all amendments had been dealt with, the social statement itself was discussed. Although I went to a queue to offer my own comments critical of the social statement, debate was closed off before I had a chance to speak. Here is the message I planned to deliver:

"Let me begin by thanking the task force and staff for the patient, resilient ways they addressed their long, arduous, multi-part task. It is not surprising to me that over the course of 7+ years one-third of the task force members have 'turned over.' I hope that future assemblies will avoid asking one task force to take on so large a task.

"I also want to acknowledge that there are some very helpful things in this statement....such as the way it helps us see that there are more than two positions, more like four positions, on homosexuality....and I also affirm the stirring words in this document concerning commercial sexual exploitation, the "commodification of the body," and similar topics. Thank you for that.

"But I also must register some concerns about this document.

"First, I look for a social statement as a theological document to have THEOLOGY clearly evident as the Windows "operating system" throughout the whole document, helping us and the members of the wider society who may be listening in to think more thoughtfully and deeply with the Word of God leading the way. It strikes me that there are sections of this document, particuarly toward the end of it, where I felt as though the train had left the station, but the theological cargo didn't get loaded.

"Second, I look for a social statement as a teaching statement to use the best tools from our Lutheran treasure-chest, and if new modes of reflection are proposed, to build good bridges to them FROM time-honored Lutheran ways of doing ethical reflection. At several points I wish this document did a better job at that. To cite just one example, our rich Lutheran understanding of 'orders of creation' deserves something more noble than the kind of 'burial' that it gets here in footnote #11.

"Third, it seems to me that this statement tends to move us away from saying that there is throughout the scriptural and confessional witness a FORM to sexual relationships that we are confident has the blessing and command of God. It seems to me that there is proposed in this document no FORM of sexual expression that grounds us, serves as our North Star reference point....but instead we are directed to certain qualities of all kinds of sexual relationships (of whatever form)--that they be loving, committed, faithful, etc (all good things, by the way!)

"That subtle move away from the 'formfulness' of human sexuality is perhaps most troubling to me because I believe it will diminish our capacity to address faithfully other, future issues regarding human sexuality that will surely arise in the years to come. I suspect that many ELCA Lutherans who are not present with us in this assembly hall would agree with me in this concern. Thank you."

During the extended debate on the sexuality statement, two of the most amazing things happened. First, during the mid-afternoon, a tornado briefly touched down in Minneapolis--damaging part of the Convention Center roof (we were safe the whole time, but could hear the sirens)....AND damaging the spire of nearby Central Lutheran Church. Amazing!

But then, in the early evening, when we finally took our vote on the social statement, as amended (requiring a 2/3 majority vote, based on the ELCA Constitution), I witnessed something I had yet to see: Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson being stunned by the outcome of the vote: 676 in favor, and 338 opposed. The vote percentages were 66.67% YES and 33.33% NO.



  1. Bishop Wohlrabe,
    I am sorry you didn't get to address the assembly they could've used these words. I want you to know how hopeful and uplifting your words have been to me. The fact that a bishop of our beloved church can be such a confessional and orthodox witness in the midst of the quagmire we have put ourselves in has moved me in my moral and vocational deliberation. So thank you, although you aren't my bishop I would really enjoy the opportunity for some dialogue.

    In Christ
    Matthew Voyer STS

  2. Karen Holmberg-SmithAugust 20, 2009 at 7:07 PM

    Thank you, Bishop, for taking the time to blog during the assembly. I appreciate your thoughtfulness and your clear articulation of the theological issues involved. My prayers are that you may voice your concerns tomorrow before the vote, and that they will be heard, respected, and heeded.
    In Christ,
    Karen Holmberg-Smith

  3. Romans 1: 18-32 tells us exactly what is happening within our church today. I'm so afraid for what this will mean to my family and me. Thank you Bishop for showing me that there are still those in the ELCA who have biblical discernment. You have demonstrated in your work and life that you are listening and hearing God speak. I pray that you can stand up to the evil that I know you will face.

    Be vigilant as you do His work.

    Yours in Prayer,
    Jeana Lundeen

  4. Regarding the 25 people who reportedly left the assembly early for dinner reservations and did not vote on the resolution, I can't help but wonder if their presence might have changed the outcome of the vote, either positively or negatively. Why would elected delegates shirk the responsibility of representing their respective synods?