Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Lutherans Play Fair: ELCA Rejects Supermajority Maneuver for Vote on Gay Ministers

Some fascinating developments are taking place these days at the churchwide assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA). The meeting is happening right now in Minneapolis.

Monday night, ELCA delegates defeated a motion that would have required a two-thirds majority to pass a resolution permitting openly gay clergy in partnered relationships to serve ELCA congregations. The motion to require a supermajority rather than a simple majority to pass this resolution was defeated by a vote of 57 to 43 percent (and see here).

What I want to say about this vote links to what I wrote several weeks ago about the Archbishop of Canterbury’s new procedural rules for changing the mind of churches about gay issues. As I noted in my postings commenting on those rules (here and here), Rowan Williams’s procedural rules for changing the church’s moral mind about homosexuality effectively create insuperable obstacles for those who think the Anglican church can and should reassess its views about homosexuality.

Rowan Williams now holds (a departure from his previous position) that the scriptures are unambiguous in their condemnation of homosexuality, and that the church has always and universally condemned homosexuality. He proposes that the church can change its mind about gay people and gay lives only as a result of ongoing study, more dialogue, and, finally, widespread consensus supporting such a change.

As my postings about Rowan Williams’ procedural rules argue, these rules are a formula for stasis. They set the bar so impossibly high that the church will not ever revise its teaching about gay people and gay lives, no matter how strong the calls for change are within church and society. These rules lock the church into an endless round of futile discussion, debate, and study of issues about which most people have long since made up their mind, and regarding which they want the church to make an unambiguous, clear statement. One way or the other.

The rules also overlook the historical evidence about how churches change their moral mind (and the fact that churches have often changed their moral mind after holding an unambiguous position on a moral matter for centuries). Churches shift their moral consensus only when groups, both within and outside churches, catch sight of a new way of viewing things that is more consistent with the fundamental values of Christianity, and then begin to pressure (and shame) the church into admitting that its traditional stance belies its core values—and central aspects of scriptural teaching.

Churches don’t change their moral minds as a result of majority votes. They certainly don’t change their moral minds as a result of supermajority votes. The requirement that a church shift its understanding of a moral issue (and of the lives of those affected by that issue) on the basis of majority votes—let alone supermajority votes—implicitly places power in the hands of those who already wield power, and who usually have a vested interest at keeping change at bay.

I have been sensitized lately to the mechanisms by which churches continue to keep gay people and gay lives in a holding pen through manipulation of procedural roles by a book I’ve mentioned previously on this thread. This is Grif Stockley’s study of the history of race relations in Arkansas, Ruled by Race.

Stockley’s picture of what happened in Arkansas (and throughout the South) in the Jim Crow period is horrifying. It is a reminder of how procedural rules and the ballot box can be used—often systematically and ruthlessly—to reduce entire groups of people to the status of despised objects.

As Stockley notes, with emancipation and Reconstruction, African-American citizens of Arkansas began to vote and to serve in public office. Even as Reconstruction ended, some white citizens worked with black citizens to develop a “fusion politics” (p. 92) that continued to open doors for black enfranchisement and public service, though those doors were not so numerous following the end of Reconstruction as they had been just after emancipation.

And then all doors slammed shut—decisively and violently. All over the South, African-American citizens entered a long nightmare of disenfranchisement and violence that was totally dependent on legal enactments pushed through state legislatures by white majorities, which were then upheld by courts as the will of the majority. In 1891, election “reforms” were enacted that used literacy tests in draconian ways to disenfranchise large numbers of black voters (p. 125).

Then, when black voters could no longer vote because of the 1891 “reforms,” legislatures passed a poll-tax amendment that further disenfranchised some black voters who had passed the bar of the literacy test (ibid.). The predictable outcome of these political machinations by a white majority intent on returning African-American citizens to quasi-servitude was violence. As Stockley notes, “Suddenly it was open season on Arkansas blacks” (p. 127) and by 1892, lynchings peaked both in the South and the nation at large (pp. 117, 126)—and they continued well into the 1930s in many places.

Deprive people of the power to vote; manipulate a political system so that, if their vote has the power to change things (lynchings were worst in black-majority counties in Arkansas), a vote is not permitted: violent repression is the only possible next step, particularly when those people have tasted liberation and know things can be otherwise. And that repression (with carefully crafted acts of violence) will go on as long as a “majority” has the right to make the rules, bend them to keep itself in power, and turn for support to courts and legislators that happen to be—you guessed it—the same folks as those who constitute the “majority.”

And now segue back to what has just taken place at the ELCA assembly. On Friday, delegates will vote on a task-force recommendation that, if it passes, will permit individual ELCA churches and synods to recognize and support lifelong committed gay relationships, and to call to ministry those living in such relationships.

As Phil Soucy notes on the Goodsoil Central blog, on Friday, delegates will vote on both this recommendation and another on human sexuality, which discusses the theological basis for the current ELCA understanding of that topic. Since the latter recommendation—the Social Statement on Human Sexuality—is what the ELCA calls a “social” statement, it requires a two-thirds majority to pass. It does so because that is one of the procedural rules of ELCA assemblies vis-à-vis social statements.

The ministry recommendation is not a social statement, and requires only a simple majority to pass. So some delegates who are opposed to this recommendation—that is, to the acceptance of openly gay clergy in lifelong committed same-sex relationships—proposed a change in the rules. They wanted not a simple majority vote but a supermajority vote to be applied to this recommendation, in order for it to pass.

It was that change in the rules that the ELCA delegates defeated by a 57-43 percent vote on Monday evening. When the bishop of the Allegheny Synod, Gregory Pile, proposed that the ministry issue is so “serious” that it requires a supermajority vote, Ronald Pittman, a delegate of the Oregon Synod, noted in response that previous votes to bar openly gay candidates from ministry had required only a majority vote, not a supermajority.

In other words, as long as those opposed to changes in the ELCA’s position about gay people and gay lives had a clear and predictable majority, a simple majority was fine. When they appear to be losing turf to their opponents, suddenly these issues require a new, higher bar, in order for change to be considered: they require a supermajority.

Which is in itself a fascinating admission—a very telling one—on the part of many of those in the churches who oppose opening the doors to gay people and gay lives. For ever so long, we’ve been told that the will of the majority needs to hold sway and rule, that it’s all about respecting what the majority wants.

Now that a shift is occurring in society at large and within the churches, such that those opposed to full inclusion of gay people and gay lives in the churches are beginning to be in the minority, suddenly these issues become “serious” and demand a supermajority if we intend to entertain change. In light of that societal (and ecclesial)* shift, it’s fascinating to read the headlines of Archbishop Chaput’s influential Catholic News Agency reporting on the ELCA vote: CNA is reporting that the Lutherans have now established a “low threshold” for changes in their stance on gays in ministry.

A majority vote is now a low threshold? In whose universe and on what planet, I wonder? As Michael Bayly insightfully notes on his Wild Reed blog, Catholics could stand to learn something of value about catholicity from watching our Lutheran brothers and sisters engaging in dialogue at this ELCA assembly.

As Emily Eastwood of Lutherans Concerned points out (here and here), this procedural vote does not necessarily presage a majority vote on behalf of the ministry recommendation. Even so, it’s an important vote to note for two reasons.

First, the attempt to change the rules after years of simple majority votes were used to exclude openly gay ministry candidates in the ELCA provides a striking illustration of how procedural rules—and plain old Machiavellian treachery—have long been used in deliberations of church assemblies to stack the deck against those who call for decent treatment of gay and lesbian human beings. It’s time for those fighting against full inclusion of gays and lesbians to stop employing deceitful procedural tricks (and arguments) to support their cause. They are undermining the moral persuasiveness of their cause.

Second, the vote indicates that increasing numbers of Christians are becoming fed up with those deceitful tricks, and want open, respectful dialogue in their churches—not political maneuvers to keep dialogue at bay. I take heart from the ELCA vote, and I tip my hat to my Lutheran brothers and sisters for insisting that, whatever the outcome of this battle happens to be, it will at least be fought honorably and in the light.

Meanwhile (and as a counterpoint to this story), there’s the situation of the United Methodist Church. As a good friend of mine, an ordained minister and theologian with a foot in both the Presbyterian and the United Methodist Church emailed me to say this week, the UMC is actually moving backwards, when it comes to gay people and gay lives. I share that perception, and this development concerns me because 1) it’s at such variance with the Wesleyan tradition and the history of Methodism, and 2) Methodists exert great influence in American culture because they are the church of Main Street USA. As go Methodists, so goes the nation.

The homepage of the well-funded right-wing Institute on Religion and Democracy has a scrolling headline right now which is crowing that the Methodists have just defeated a “gay-related” membership policy. This links to an article by Daniel Burke at Christianity Today which notes that 27 of 44 UMC regional conferences rejected an amendment that would have prevented individual churches from denying membership to people simply because they are gay.

That amendment, which would have declared that membership in Methodist churches is open to "all persons, upon taking vows declaring the Christian faith, and relationship in Jesus Christ," was approved by delegates to last year’s UMC General Conference. Approval of it required a two-thirds vote by annual conferences. Of those annual conferences using the supermajority mechanism to continue telling gay people we are not welcome in Methodist churches, the large majority are in Southern states.

The same states that bent every rule possible in the 19th century to disenfranchise black voters and return African-American citizens to quasi-servitude. I’d like to encourage my Methodist brothers and sisters to take a good look at what just happened among their Lutheran brothers and sisters. Perhaps we can all learn valuable lessons from what the ELCA did on Monday evening.

* 61% of ELCA clergy recently reported to pollsters that they think the churches have a moral obligation to work for full inclusion of LGBT people in society.