The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s (ELCA) first openly gay bishop, Guy Erwin, presided over a highly heterodox worship service on August 14, 2013, during ELCA’s 2013 Churchwide Assembly in Pittsburgh. Erwin’s subsequent dismissal of the service’s doctrinal significance notwithstanding, the bishop’s presence amidst such liturgical revisionism raises disturbing questions about proper theological formation in the ELCA.
This Festival Worship took place in the Omni William Penn Hotel’s Grand Ballroom after the ELCA assembly’s events had concluded that day in the David L. Lawrence Convention Center blocks away. For the unsuspecting churchgoer, the service’s liturgical program printed by the gay Lutheran groups hosting the worship, ReconcilingWorks and Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries, was jarring. The service’s “Thanksgiving for Baptism,” for example, invokes the “triune God” not under the formulation given by Jesus in the Gospels of “Father, Son, and Holy Ghost/Spirit,” but rather “Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit.”
Any adherent of orthodoxy like me, accustomed to the Anglican 1928 Book of Common Prayer (BCP), would be flabbergasted by the program’s “Affirmation of Faith.” This apparent reworking of Christianity’s basic statement of faith, the Nicene Creed invokes again a non-gendered “God” as opposed to the creed’s “Father Almighty” in the 1928 BCP translation. Likewise, the God who “came to us in human form—Jesus” receives no gender designation as the “only-begotten Son of God.”
Completely absent from the affirmation is also any reference to Jesus being “crucified under Pontius Pilate” or how “on the third day” Jesus “rose again from the dead according to the Scriptures.” The closest the affirmation comes is a mention of Jesus coming “to save a troubled world from sin and death” with the “possibility of eternal life.” Avoiding God as patriarch once more, the affirmation makes no mention of how Jesus now sits “on the right hand of the Father” and “shall come again with glory to judge both the quick and the dead.”
Along with the father of a non-gendered Jesus in the “Affirmation of Faith,” His mother is also absent. Nowhere does the Festival Worship mention how Jesus “was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary,” a passage to which Anglicans kneel in reverence in the 1928 BCP liturgy. Although the “Holy Spirit” appears in the affirmation as “God with us—working in and through us to make all things new,” the affirmation, of course, never mentions this spirit in conjunction with the “Father and the Son.” Given the affirmation’s multiple deviations from the Nicaea Creed, it is perhaps just as well that the affirmation omits any common belief in “one catholic and apostolic church.”
Deviations continue in the Festival Worship’s “Adaption of the Prayer that Jesus Taught Us,” more traditionally known as the Lord’s Prayer. Here “our Father” predictably gives way to an “Eternal Spirit” who is “Father and Mother of us all.” Although the text incorporates the basic themes from the Lord’s Prayer, the formulation is hardly an improvement upon the original.
Scrutiny of the Festival Worship liturgy reveals a scrupulous absence of gender terms and other words. “Father” and “mother” never appear, except in the aforementioned divine dualism. “Son” similarly never occurs in the text, except where a reading from Isaiah 56:3-8 promises from God to “eunuchs who keep my Sabbath” a “name better than that of sons and daughters.” The Festival Worship also entirely omits the word “Lord,” not just in the Lord’s Prayer.
Interviewed the following day in the convention center about the service, Erwin responded that the Festival Worship’s creeds and prayers were “not authorized in any official way.” Being “very clear” about this liturgy “being an adaption” of traditional forms, Erwin stated that in Lutheran practice there is “more flexibility in form” and “often variety.” This was “unlike Anglicanism…where there is an official” model to follow.
Questioned about the motive behind the gender-neutral language he had not authored, Erwin was not certain, but stated that the “purpose in a lot of these things is to avoid gender references.” The “purpose of that is to keep people from feeling excluded” and to “expand peoples’ ideas of what God can be like” even as all human understandings of God are “inherently limited.” Erwin, though, professed to “prefer the classical language of the creeds personally.” He assumed as well that the Festival Worship participants accept traditional liturgy, something confirmed by ReconcilingWorks board member Phil Soucy, who had seen these individuals attend other services during the ELCA assembly.
Consideration of whether the Festival Worship drafters and others would seek to de-gender the entire Bible prompted Erwin to ask “how important is it to have it a particular way.” Concerning Jesus in particular, Erwin considered it a “good question” on whether understanding Jesus as male was significant. Jesus came “presumably as male” for Erwin, yet he did not expect to have “completely understood” Jesus’ long-discussed dual God-man nature “this side of the Kingdom.”
Mention of some congregations having created female-figured crucifixes, however, brought objection from Erwin as “taking it in the wrong place.” Soucy as well found this matter “reduced to absurdity” with a female crucifix. Asked to specify his objection, Erwin considered this a “good question” as well, before rejecting the “idea that we have to transpose a view of Jesus as we have traditionally received.” It would be “much better to remove” gender “altogether from a literal image.”
Soucy found himself disturbed by the interview’s focus on gender in theology, requesting that “we try another line of questioning,” yet the concerns flowing from the Festival Worship are not trivial. Upon being elected ELCA’s first presiding bishop in Pittsburgh, Elizabeth Eaton stated that Lutherans could withstand deep divisions over issues like human sexuality “as long as we agree on the cross of Christ.” The Festival Worship, however, suggests that many of its homosexual supporters cannot even do that.
Not only did the crucifixion not seem significant to the Festival Worship editors, but they apparently cannot agree on Jesus’ human nature. There is no indication in this liturgy of Jesus’ as a male son “born of woman” named Mary. Festival Worship does, indeed, therefore, leave open for those so inclined the possibility of a female messiah suffering death upon across for human salvation. This is a ghoulish prospect (Crucifixion as snuff film?) raising questions about whether men should ordinarily protect women.
ReconcilingWorks proclaims on the Festival Worship liturgy booklet opposition to “artificial distinctions” such as “racism, sexism, ageism, able-ism, heterosexism,” and “homophobia.” Nonetheless, the Bible seems to see the gender distinctions involved in opposition to homosexuality as anything but artificial. Genesis 1:27 describes God creating humanity in His image as “male and female,” with the woman taken from man being God’s specific solution to Adam’s inability to find a partner among the animals (Genesis 2:18-23).
The union of man and woman as husband and wife in turn produces “one flesh” (Genesis 2:24), both in the organic sexual union of male with female and in childbearing, something later invoked by Jesus in the New Testament (e.g. Matthew 19:5). This natural family unit of husband, wife, and children also appears in the Fifth of the Ten Commandments with the call for children to “honor your father and mother” (Exodus 20:12). This commandment appears on the first tablet of commandments treating the relationship between man God, as the Anglican evangelical John Stott analyzed, for God’s full image in husband and wife represents the divine to a child.
Gender plays significant roles elsewhere in the Bible. The New Testament analogizes the relationship between Jesus and the church to a husband and wife (e.g. Mark 2:19). Jesus sacrifices unto death for the church the same way the apostle Paul calls upon a husband to sacrifice for his obedient wife (Ephesians 5:22-33). Both the Old Testament narrative of God calling upon Abraham to sacrifice his only son Isaac (Genesis 22:19) and the New Testament’s parable of the forgiven Prodigal Son (Luke 15:10-32), meanwhile, with their evident parallels in God’s behavior, suggest God as a father. One assembly participant in Pittsburgh insightfully explained, moreover, that the full extent of fatherly compassion towards the Prodigal Son is not understandable absent an understanding of how Jewish fathers in Jesus’ time would have normally behaved. The father running to receive the Prodigal Son, for example, would have revealed his legs, something deeply embarrassing in ancient Israel.
Several more orthodox Lutherans at the assembly were aghast to see the Festival Worship program with its theological liberties. For these individuals, Erwin’s non-canonical understanding of the service was unavailing. Along with other means of religious instruction, liturgy, however varied, should reflect sound, unitary doctrine for everyone alike. In particular, the Nicene Creed demanded significant theological efforts, both in its formulation at the 325 Council of Nicaea in Asia Minor and later defense against challenge, while the New Testament recounts the Lord’s Prayer coming from Jesus Himself. In this context, Festival Worship’s amateur hour gay improvisation is simply not acceptable.
Elected in Pittsburgh as ELCA’s first female presiding bishop, Elizabeth Eaton described her fellow ELCA clerical novelty Erwin to the Huffington Post online as “one of our most faithful and also scholarly confessional theologians.” Erwin is a “faithful minister of the Gospel and a great voice to explain the Lutheran way of looking at things” and his election in way signified an attempt “to catch a wave in popular culture.” Notwithstanding Erwin’s universally recognized erudition, Festival Worship visitors could easily have overlooked Eaton’s assessment.
As subsequent reporting will show, moreover, Festival Worship’s rejection of gender and other deviations from norms was hardly unique amidst ReconcilingWork’s events throughout the assembly. Once homosexuals like Erwin reject standards for their own sexual and lifestyle behavior, they apparently will have little compunction about constructing a theology to match. Given such revisionism, the 2013 Churchwide Assembly’s slogan of “Always Being Made New” takes on a whole new, disturbing meaning. Yet the wisdom of Luke 5:39, cited by the Festival Worship, will ultimately prove true: “People never want new wine after they’ve been drinking the old. They say, ‘We like the old better.’”