On Welcoming Prophets
David R. Weiss, March 3, 2010
The church as a whole, like its Hebrew forebears and its Jewish cousins, has a better record of recognizing its prophets long after their words and deeds have lost their edge than of responding well to them in the present moment.
From Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Jesus on to Martin Luther and Martin Luther King, Jr., those voices who spoke words of unwelcome truth to power have rarely—if ever—been warmly welcomed.
So it is not surprising that the ELCA, especially within its institutional structures where power lingers as much by inertia as by intent, has a hard time knowing how to “welcome” onto its roster those seventeen persons ordained extra ordinem over the past two decades. Still, as the bishops gather this weekend (March 4-9, 2010) to consider on what terms to extend the recognition of ministry to these persons, it is worth reflecting on the weight of this present moment.
Of the approximately forty persons on the roster of Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries (ELM), more than half have been duly ordained by a Lutheran body and either left ministry or were removed from ministry due to the ELCA’s discriminatory policy toward gay and lesbian pastors. They became rostered through ELM as part of their return to ministry. A handful of persons on the roster are approved for call but not yet ordained.
But the ELM roster also includes “the Seventeen”—those who were called and ordained into ministry through acts of ecclesial disobedience, conspiring (that is “breathing together”) with ELCA congregations to respond to the call of the Spirit in a time before that call was acknowledged by church structures. Each of these Seventeen met all of the criteria required of every ELCA pastor, except that they chose not to submit to the one criterion held to be unjust and at odds with the gospel (that is, the criterion of mandatory celibacy for gay and lesbian person).
Hence, unable to be faithful to the Spirit’s call within the church’s policies, their ordinations were completed extra ordinem—“outside of regular orders.” It is these seventeen extraordinarily ordained persons who pose such a quandary for our bishops and our church.
If these Seventeen are simply received onto the ELCA roster, does that implicitly “reward” their disregard for good order … or does it humbly acknowledge them as prophets of an advent of justice and good news that the ELCA itself only began to recognize last August?
The theology of these next steps is clearer than it might seem at first glance. The Lutheran Confessions affirm that there are rare but clear occasions in which churches may ordain, independent of bishops or other human authority. ELM has made a cogent case that their ordinations are such instances. And the actions of Churchwide 2009 confirm this. In acknowledging the legitimacy of a biblical/theological perspective that affirms same-gender relationships, the ELCA Assembly also implicitly acknowledged that churches and individuals whose actions (even regarding ordination) were motivated by this perspective were indeed acting in good faith even before August 2009. And I mean “good faith” in the deepest, most theological sense. Not merely in genuine sincerity, but in genuine faithful response to the gospel.
The possibility of “re-ordaining” such persons is thus much more than theologically problematic. It flirts with ecclesiolatry—namely, the danger of giving greater reverence to the fixed structures of a church than to the freedom of God.
There is, of course, something to be said for good order. But whenever a church’s desire for good order threatens outright to eclipse its proclamation of the gospel, its repentance of past injustice, and its practice of justice in the present moment—when these things happen, then good order has been pressed into the service of preserving power and privilege. Such order no longer serves the God who came preaching good news to the poor and liberating the captives.
We are not, after all, really discussing the reception of these Seventeen onto the ELCA roster. Let’s at least be clear about that.
We are discussing the efficacy of every baptism performed by these Seventeen. Would we, for the sake of “good order,” render every one of these baptisms as nothing more than playing with water? Would we, for the sake of “good order,” call into question the faith of any of these children or parents that their baptisms had truly marked them forever with the cross of Christ?
We are discussing the efficacy of every meal presided at by these Seventeen. Would we, for the sake of “good order,” retroactively banish Jesus from every meal at which they had beckoned him present? Would we, for the sake of “good order,” wish to state that every one of these congregations has been sacramentally malnourished under these Seventeen?
We are, indeed, discussing the very depth of welcome that we mean to extend to—or to withhold from—every gay and lesbian person of faith. Period. If we “welcome” these Seventeen onto the ELCA roster by dismissing their prior ministry, by rejecting the authority and the spiritual integrity of the congregations that called and ordained them, and by asserting our power over them, we will have sent a Jim Crow-like warning to every gay and lesbian child of God in our sanctuaries and beyond, that in this church gay and lesbian persons enter on our terms, not God’s. We will have committed an act of inhospitality the likes of which will rival the men of Sodom.
Finally, we are discussing our own repentance for decades, even centuries, in which the church—this church and its predecessors—has squashed vocations, fractured families, withered faith, and been complicit in the despair and suicide of countless of God’s children. And do we dare discuss a matter of such gravity—of such guilt on our part—by thinking to suggest that we “solve” it by re-ordaining these Seventeen people?!
If we go down this road, we must be ready for the company we will keep. We will hear Rachel weeping for her children. We will hear Jeremiah accusing us of healing the wound of our people too lightly, pretending by these re-ordinations to say “peace, peace,” when then is no peace. We will hear Isaiah cry out plaintively, “For how long, O Lord, will the mind of this people be dull?” And we will hear Jesus lament—as we did only last week in our lectionary: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”
The Bible is clear on these two things. The proper response to a prophet is repentance. The most common response is throwing rocks. I hope the bishops can tell the difference.
David R. Weiss is the author of To the Tune of a Welcoming God: Lyrical reflections on sexuality, spirituality and the wideness of God’s welcome (2008, Langdon Street Press). A theologian, writer, poet and hymnist committed to doing “public theology” around issues of sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace, David lives in St. Paul, Minnesota and is a self-employed speaker and writer on the intersection of sexuality & spirituality. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and at https://tothetune.wordpress.com.