By Robert Benne
Last week at its annual assembly the Southwest California Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) elected its first openly gay Bishop—Guy Erwin, who is a theology professor at California Lutheran University in California Oaks as well as the interim pastor of a nearby ELCA parish. Erwin has been ordained a mere two years because the ELCA has ordained openly gay pastors only since the momentous decisions of its 2009 Churchwide Assembly, which allowed the ordination of partnered gays. He respectfully waited to be properly ordained rather than join the ranks of those who had been irregularly ordained before the ELCA officially permitted it. He is in a partnered relationship and identifies with a Native American nation. He took his undergraduate degree from Harvard and his graduate degrees from Yale.
His election was not unexpected since it was rumored that he would be nominated. He was already well-known because of a feature article in the ELCA magazine The Lutheran about his ordination as a partnered gay. He is a favored theologian of the Presiding Bishop of the ELCA, Mark Hanson. Moreover, since the 2009 decisions that allowed the blessing and ordination of partnered gays it was inevitable that an openly gay or lesbian pastor would be elected as Bishop sooner or later.
There are a number of significant effects of this ordination. For one, it seals and reinforces the tacit commitment of the ELCA to normalize homosexual conduct. The election of a partnered gay to the high office of Bishop certainly affirms the sexuality involved in that partnership. This affirmation will in turn encourage more synods to ordain partnered gays and more parishes to bless—or, more likely, “marry”—partnered gays. I wrote “tacit commitment” because the ELCA does not yet have any public, normative biblical or theological rationale for its normalization of homosexual conduct. Its 2009 Social Statement on Sexuality admits that there was no consensus in the church on the bottom-line issue of the moral legitimation of gay sex. Yet it changed two of the central practices of the church—ordination and marriage—anyway. This, by the way, is from a church that prides itself in its commitment to theological guidance of its life and mission.
There will be few open protests to his election since the “commanding heights” of the church are heartily in favor of it. Open resistance would mean a diminished future for pastors in the church. The phony provision to respect the “bound conscience” of traditionalists will be narrowed further to pastors and individuals in parishes who don’t make any fuss. There is already little public fuss because most pastors and their parishes are terrified even to bring up this subject, fearing rightly that it will cost them members either way they go.
But there will be those pastors and laypeople throughout the ELCA who will find this more than they can stomach and will depart for the Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ (LCMC) or for the North American Lutheran Church (NALC). The Southwest California Synod has already lost many of its largest churches to the LCMC. How many more will leave is unclear. Maybe the wave of leavings of the ELCA is over, though a continuing stream of churches has been departing even before this decision. The larger effects on the ELCA will consist of individual Lutherans drifting off to other churches or simply withholding their money from the synodical and national expressions of the church.
The major repercussion of the election of Erwin will be international. The growing African Lutheran churches will distance themselves further from the ELCA, much like the African Anglican Churches separated from their Episcopalian counterparts. Already the Ethopian Evangelical Church Mekane Jesus, the second largest Lutheran body in the world, has terminated its relationship with the ELCA and the Church of Sweden. That termination also ended the “companion” relationship between the South Central Synod of the Ethopian Evangelical Church Mekane Jesus and the Southwest California Synod of the ELCA, the Synod that ordained Erwin. The Ethiopian church has instead established formal relations with the North American Lutheran Church.
The next in line will most likely be the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania—six million and growing—which had already planned to send a Bishop to the annual NALC Convocation to be held in Pittsburgh in August. After the election of Erwin the Tanzanians will likely break with the ELCA and move to establish relations with the NALC. Other African churches will probably follow that pattern.
These international effects will be embarrassing to the ELCA, which prides itself so much in its “inclusivity.” But it seems there are limits to that theme, both at home and abroad. The realignment of Christianity moves apace before our very eyes.