(Editor’s Note: Holger Sonntag commented on one of our many strings on the ELCA issue that the vote for full communion with the UMC may be the greater story here despite all the attention the statements on sexuality have received. We asked him to expand on this thesis and he has blessed us with this fine article. It is a lengthy post so we have serialized it. Here is part one.)
The Eleventh ELCA Churchwide Assembly According to Law and Gospel – Part I: What is Full Communion?
The 2009 Churchwide Assembly of the ELCA in Minneapolis made two major decisions, one in the realm of the law, the other in the realm of the gospel. The first was to allow homosexuals in committed relationships to serve as rostered leaders in various ministry roles. The second was to enter into a “full communion” relationship with the United Methodist Church.
No doubt, ELCA’s 2009 assembly caused the biggest splash by its August 21, 2009 decision to open its ordained ministry to gay and lesbian people in committed relationships. Previously, this group of people was allowed to serve as rostered leaders only while living celibate lives. This decision was preceded by the adoption of the “social statement” on human sexuality, “Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust,” by exactly the required 2/3 margin.
Representative of reactions focused on the issue of practicing homosexual ministers are the statements of the Lutheran Churchâ€”Canada and the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, and the remarks by the Synodical President of the Lutheran Churchâ€”Missouri Synod, Rev. Gerald Kieschnick, delivered on August 22, 2009 right where the assembly was held in Minneapolis, all of which express disagreement with this decision of the ELCA.
Now, as I said, this topic garnered most attention, even in national media. And it clearly deserves attention since it represents a major shift in a Lutheran church body’s teaching on this hotly debated issue involving God’s unchanging law. However, one should not forget another major decision made by this assembly, namely, that of entering into “full communion” with the United Methodist Church. And while the resolution allowing for homosexual ministers in the ELCA passed by a relatively slim margin (559-451), the resolution concerning fellowship with the Methodist Church passed by an amazing 958-51 vote.
First of all, what is “full communion”? According to an ELCA news release, it is defined this way:
Full communion is not a merger. But it means that the two churches express a common confession of Christian faith; mutual recognition of Baptism and sharing Holy Communion; join worship and freedom to exchange members; agree to mutual recognition of ordained ministers for service in either church; express a common commitment to evangelism, witness and service; engage in common decision-making on critical matters; and a mutual lifting of criticisms that may exist between the churches.
Starting with the issue discussed above, that of practicing homosexual ministers, one is surprised to read this statement: “mutual recognition of ordained ministers for service in either church.” Now, the UMC’s official position still is this:
While persons set apart by the Church for ordained ministry are subject to all the frailties of the human condition and the pressures of society, they are required to maintain the highest standards of holy living in the world. The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church.
Clearly, either the negotiators of the UMC, and those who voted for this agreement on the UMC side last year, already anticipated a change in the UMC’s official position in this matter or this issue will require major negotiating after the festive banners celebrating this “historic agreement” – also by singing a hymn by Charles Wesley, as was duly noted in a UMC press release – have been rolled up again in Minneapolis.
In a document supporting its entering into “full communion” with the UMC, the ELCA has publicly declared that this kind of fellowship between church bodies does not require theological uniformity:
A relationship of full communion does not preclude theological distinctions and differences; however, a relationship of full communion does mean that these differences are not church-dividing. For instance, both the UMC and ELCA theologies are grace-centered and Christ-centered. Rather than dividing, theological distinctions and differences between United Methodists and Lutherans complement and enrich theological awareness and discourse. The Lutheran understanding of human incapacity and the United Methodist view of the transformative power of God’s grace inform and encourage greater clarity and discernment. In spite of different emphases, these are not church-dividing issues, due to each tradition’s strong trinitarian theology and confidence in the grace of God for salvation.
(The next post will answer the question – “When is a theological disagreement church dividing?”)