Tuesday, August 25, 2009

A Former Lutheran on the ELCA Decisions: Eric Reitan's Statement

As a counterpoint to my postings on the actions taken at the recent ELCA assembly (see especially here, and click labels ELCA and Evangelical Lutheran Church of America), I’d like to take note of an outstanding article that Religion Dispatches posted today. It's by Eric Reitan.

Reitan is a former Lutheran who left the ELCA for the United Church of Christ when he could no longer live with its stance on gays in ministry. Though his family has deep roots in the ELCA and his extended family “practically drips with Lutheran pastors,” Reitan could not accept the decision of the ELCA to turn gay Lutherans into

second-class citizens—invited to join the church but denied the right to pursue ordination (unless they submitted to a requirement of celibacy not imposed on straight clergy), and excluded from the only model of responsible sexuality that the church offers: the institution of marriage.

Note that, as someone with insider knowledge of the ELCA’s dealings with gay Lutherans, Reitan confirms the point I have persistently made about last week’s decisions—a point the mainstream media seem intent on missing spectacularly: the ELCA decisions are about justice. They’re about abolishing a caste system that turned gay Lutherans into second-class citizens.

Contrary to what Patrick Condon has published in his now widely distributed articles on the Lutheran decision to ordain “sexually active gays,” the ELCA prohibition of non-celibate Lutheran ministers did not extend to straight Lutherans in ministry. Only gay Lutherans seeking ministry positions were asked to choose lifelong celibacy as a prerequisite to ordination and to active ministry. Unmarried straight Lutherans seeking ordination and ministry positions have always had and will always have the option to marry.

And the ELCA decision about this is monumental, because the ELCA is not the only church that has created precisely this kind of two-tier, second-class system to handle the question of gays in ministry, now that more church members are coming out of the closet, and some of those are experiencing calls to ministry.

After battling within the ELCA for a number of years to gain justice for gay Lutherans, Eric Reitan and his wife could no longer stay in the ELCA. They felt worn out, spiritually dispossessed. They wanted a place to worship in which they would not be forced constantly to battle, and in which their gay brothers and sisters were fully affirmed. They left.

Before he did so, Reitan wrote a document he calls his “manifesto," explaining his family’s decision to move on. Reitan’s Religion Dispatches article excerpts portions of this powerful statement.

As I’ve done repeatedly on Bilgrimage, Reitan suggests that those who cite a meager handful of exegetically problematic scripture verses to condemn their gay brothers and sisters seem to be missing a very important point about the Jewish and Christian scriptures. This is that the moral vision of life they offer is normed above all by love. To use the scriptures as weapons to hurt, impair, and subjugate other human beings is to misuse them.

As Reitan notes,

Any sincere holistic reading of Scripture reveals a clear commitment to an ethic of love. As such, it seems utterly clear to me that we must reject any approach to Scripture that leads to the endorsement of teachings that marginalize some of God’s children, that contribute to suicidal depression in gay teens, that stifle compassion and inspire otherwise good people not to hear the anguished cry of their gay and lesbian neighbors. Traditional teachings about homosexuality do all of these things. If our approach to understanding Scripture and its authority leads to these teachings, then it violates the ethic of love, and hence is a profound violation of the spirit of Scripture itself.

And now Reitan has seen his church of origin move along that path, a path that makes sense to him, and the question facing him is whether he should go back. As he notes, one reason he might consider a return to the ELCA is that much work remains to be done in building bridges between Lutherans determined to move ahead on these issues, and those who remain anguished by the decisions the ELCA made last week.

Reitan notes that in his part of the country (he teaches in Oklahoma), it will be a long time before Lutheran congregations become comfortable with the presence of openly gay people and open gay couples in their midst. His recognition of what remains to be done makes him wonder whether he should return to his church of origin, now that this church has taken a step for which he battled long and hard before leaving the ELCA.

And that sounds to me like a fine reason for considering a return to the ELCA. The pressure will be intense in coming months to split the church and to punish it for its courage in taking the steps it has taken. It will certainly benefit from courageous, generous people working in the opposite direction.