The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada Votes for Decline
by Brad Everett
In less than 24 hours, and the space of four votes, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC) effectively set aside twenty centuries of Christian teaching and practice on marriage, the family, and the ordained ministry at its 2011 National Convention, held July 14–17, 2011, in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.
The sister church of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), the ELCIC is made up of approximately 145,400 baptized members in 594 congregations across Canada. The result of a merger of two Lutheran denominations in 1986, the ELCIC is the “liberal” group among Canadian Lutherans, which at one time meant endorsing practices such as the ordination of women. “Liberal” took on a new sense in the acceptance of the Social Statement on Human Sexuality and the passage of the three motions coming out of that statement, which allow for same-gender “marriage” (already permitted under Canadian law) and the ordination of non-celibate homosexuals in partnered relationships.
This wasn’t the first time these issues had come up at the National Convention—in 2005 and 2007, motions permitting same-sex blessings were defeated. Those working to change the teaching and practice of the ELCIC, including some bishops and members of the National Church Council (NCC), said that those votes had not been decisive enough and needed to be revisited (although, oddly enough, at the 2005 convention, the National Bishop was elected by a narrower margin than the same-sex blessing motion was defeated by). Thus, in 2007 a Human Sexuality Task Force was commissioned by the National Church Council to write a new social statement on the issue.
The Social Statement (which, along with the motions, can be found at http://elcic.ca/Human-Sexuality/default.cfm) began in a place foreign to traditional Lutheran methodology. Martin Luther’s Reformation slogan sola Scriptura (Scripture alone) traditionally meant that, when considering any topic, Lutherans begin with Scripture. The Social Statement began with an assessment of the world we live in, moved into a section on the Bible and theology, and concluded with a section on what this means for practice.
Where you begin affects where you end up—and this statement proves it. For example, in the first section, one finds this sentence on the family: “Family is defined and lived in various ways by various people.” In the next section, which is supposed to be theological, one finds: “Ideally, families are places of love, care, support and the nurturing of faith.” There is no mention of the unique and particular roles and relationships of fathers, mothers, and children, let alone any mention of extended family. Thus, the statement thinks families are good, but it seems to have no idea of what exactly might constitute a family.
Concerning homoerotic behavior, the Old Testament prohibitions were dismissed with such lines as: “Old Testament laws were given for the good of the Israelites. Since then, many of them have been set aside (for example, the purity laws) because they no longer applied to the contemporary context.” Lines like this had both proponents and opponents of the Social Statement criticizing the lack of scriptural or theological basis for the changes being proposed.
The votes on the statement and motions, and the debate leading up to them, show that the ELCIC is deeply divided. The votes all passed by margins of 60 to 64 percent, short of a two-thirds majority, which had been requested but denied. (Under Bourinot’s Rules of Order, which the ELCIC uses, a two-thirds margin is not required. If it is requested in a separate motion, that motion needs to pass by two-thirds, which it didn’t.)
There were also irregularities in the ballot-counting procedures for these four votes. A group of ballot counters had been selected from among the convention volunteers to count ballots for the various votes taken during the convention business. And they had handled several ballots competently until the first vote on the Social Statement on Friday night. At that point, one of the National Bishop’s assistants took the ballots and, with a couple of other people, went off to another room to count them. The National Bishop and the chair of the Committee on Elections knew of this, but it isn’t clear who gave the word for the four ballots to be counted this way. As soon as the results of each vote were announced, there was a motion to have those ballots destroyed—unlike at most conventions, where one of the last pieces of business is a motion to destroy all the ballots together at the end.
There was concern about the irregular procedures for these four votes, so I spoke to the National Bishop and the chair of the committee about them. Both said it was up to the Committee on Elections to decide who counted the votes, and it was decided to have the bishop’s assistant handle it, as that would be quicker.
One of the volunteer vote counters also wrote a letter to the National Church Council stating her concerns. When the council met in September, there was a motion made and seconded to have an independent inquiry (i.e., no members of NCC involved) into the matter, but after two hours of debate, the motion was defeated. The only hint of this in the press release sent out later was that correspondence regarding balloting had been received and the NCC would review the policy and report back before the next convention.
In an effort to mitigate the effects of the statement, the National Church Council asked the newly organized Faith, Order and Doctrine Committee to develop a “Motion on the Unity of the Church,” which included such statements as: “We affirm that the church ought not be divided because of disagreement over moral issues, no matter how distressing such disagreement might be.” In essence, they argued that, because no pastor will be forced to perform a same-gender marriage and no congregation will be forced to have a partnered homosexual pastor, ELCIC members should be able to agree to disagree (à la the ELCA’s “bound conscience”), regardless of what Scriptures like 1 Corinthians 5 might have to say about morality, salvation, and the well-being of the church.
The NCC and the members of the Sexuality Task Force encouraged people to keep in dialogue, assuring them that the Social Statement was “a living document” that would continue to be discussed. Those opposed were not buying it, however, perhaps because they recalled that another ELCIC statement, Stewards of Creation: Respect for Human Life; Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada Position on Abortion, which dates back to 1991, has yet to be discussed since passage.
The ELCIC leadership and other proponents of the Social Statement regularly appealed to the line from the Augsburg Confession, Article VII, “On the Church”—“it is enough for the unity of the church to agree concerning the teaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments”—as proof that there need not be division over the homosexuality issue. But in doing so, they misunderstood not only the Augsburg Confession but also the gravity of the situation they faced.
There is no longer agreement “concerning the teaching of the gospel” (and, by extension, the administration of the sacraments). This convention called blessed and encouraged the practice of what has been called sin for twenty centuries; it redefined the orders of creation, and it introduced new understandings of ministry and church. In short, for many in the ELCIC, the faith once delivered to the saints has been betrayed, and a new gospel is being proclaimed. •
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