Editor's Note, Aug 2009: Given the outcomes of the ELCA's 2009 Churchwide Assembly, this post is clearly a little dated. In the coming weeks I will revisit this blogpost and examine the ELCA's location on the liberal/moderate/conservative spectrum, and what that means for the mission of the church.
Original post from April, 2006, follows below:
Warning: Rant Ahead.
The Philadelphia Inquirer today published an article about a former Lutheran pastor who was recently ordained in the Roman Catholic church (Married Lutheran Minister Becomes a Catholic Priest, Philadelphia Inquirer, April 15). "His criticisms of his former denomination led him to convert," says the article's subtitle. From the article:
He was an outspoken critic of what he describes as the liberal direction of his denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), and challenged the group on issues of abortion, inclusive language, gay ordination and gay marriage (emphasis mine).
I'm not sure that I have a problem with this priest, Father Leonard Klein, who now serves in Wilmington, DE. It is probably the reporting that bothers me. Whereas I imagine that this well-educated pastor-turned-priest is familiar with the arguments that I make below, this article takes at face value a simplistic characterization of the ELCA's position on various issues – and that's too bad. The ELCA is a far more nuanced and moderate denomination than a simiple liberal-conservative characterization would suggest. Let's look at those four issues.
Abortion: The ELCA is very conflicted on this issue (as are most lay catholics and Americans – perhaps we're just honest enough to admit it?), but its social statement on abortion makes clear that we are generally opposed to abortion, while recognizing that there may be limited, legitimate reasons to have an abortion (ie, incest, rape, the health of the mother, etc. etc.). The statement ain't perfect, but it is far more conservative, nuanced and deferential to life than most people give it credit for.
Inclusive Language: Having worshiped using liturgies from the Renewing Worship project, along with liturgies from the Lutheran Book of Worship and With One Voice, I am amazed that anyone can argue that the ELCA is significantly altering the language we use to describe God or God's people. In fact, many of the changes that are more inclusive (ie, that reduce the male-dominated language) come from largely ignored elements of the Christian tradition itself, and/or are simply more descriptive of who is worshipping and who is worshiped! Surely there were some instances where proposed language represented a new liturgical perspective (often as an alternate text!), but remember that Renewing Worship was a body of trial materials, not the finished product nor a policy statement of the ELCA! On a whole the hymns, liturgies and texts of our Lutheran worship are thoroughly traditional.
Gay Ordination: Gay ordination is against the policies of the ELCA. The denomination talked about it and voted it down – soundly. Not sure what the problem is here (unless, of course, we're not even allowed to talk about difficult issues!).
Gay Marriage: Gay marriage is against the policies of the ELCA and the laws of most states in which ELCA congregations exist. The denomination talked about it and voted it down – soundly. Again, I'm not sure what the problem is here.
I'm sorry for this rant. I just don't like it when my church gets misrepresented in the newspaper, even if it is on page B4 in the Saturday edition on a holiday weekend. This is yet another example of the popular media's inability to report fairly and honestly on matters of religion. Argh.
I don't deny that the ELCA may have "liberal" characteristics as compared with the Roman Catholic Church, the Presbyterian Church in America, or the Southern Baptist Convention. But its structure, social statements, theology, and worship tradition are significantly deferential to the Church's grand traditions, especially in comparison with the mainstream and radical liberal social/political establishment.
A liberal vs. conservative, Red vs. Blue comparison is cheap and easy – but our God, our faith, our church, our tradition is not. Give it a break, please.