Copyright (c) 1999 First Things 94 (June/July 1999): 8-9.
Just when you’ve talked yourself into thinking it might not be so1 bad to belong to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) after all, the church comes out with another study on sex. This time it’s from the Division for Outreach (DO), by way of the Gay and Lesbian Outreach Study Team, and it’s called, "Congregational Ministry with Gay and Lesbian People." Actually, the DO report isn’t really about sex at all, or, more precisely, it doesn’t talk about sex. The report’s authors, like Nice Christians everywhere, think it very bad form to talk about sex when you talk about gays and lesbians. You should talk instead—you should talk only—about discrimination, persecution, and being inclusive.
The ELCA’s skittishness about sex talk is understandable. It has twice in this decade issued study guides on sexual morality in general, and both times has been badly burned. The first study was so latitudinarian on all forms of sexual relations short of bestiality—as long, of course, as they occurred in (unspecified) "committed relationships"—that the resulting storm of criticism forced its withdrawal. The carefully sanitized rewrite elicited less protest, but was so unforthcoming in its recommendations for behavior that it disappeared into the bureaucratic black hole where most such efforts wind up. Thus the new DO report, duly daunted on matters sexual, talks extensively about gays and lesbians without ever suggesting that those terms denote anything beyond a subcategory of concern about civil rights.
According to an ELCA press release, the DO report recommends the development for congregations of "a resource on welcoming to gay and lesbian people." It does so in response to a 1996 open letter from the church’s Conference of Bishops "urging ELCA members to be sensitive to the gifts and needs of gay and lesbian members, and . . . to reach out to all God’s people." The report’s information on how congregations might become welcoming came from observations and interviews at sixteen ELCA congregations already noted for their welcoming attitude.
"Prospective visitors," the report says, "search for tangible clues to a congregation’s openness, hoping to see visible signs that this congregation will be a ‘safe place.’" Such signs include, the press release notes, "warmly greeting visitors before and after worship; including gay and lesbian members in different leadership roles in the congregation; affirming members individually first and then as a family unit; recognizing that hospitality is not judgmental, even if not all members and visitors share the same views; having a reputation outside the congregation as being active in social justice issues; and participating in community gay and lesbian events."
In "welcoming congregations," the report goes on, "lay and clergy leaders often use the words gay and lesbian in sermons, prayers, adult forums, and other congregational settings." In addition, according to the press summary, such congregations "tend to use inclusive language in the worship service and acknowledge gay and lesbian couples as partners in the same way married couples are recognized."
The decision to become a welcoming congregation, the report notes, is not necessarily pain–free. It requires strong leadership as well as extensive dialogue and education, and even then may involve "painful conversations." But the learning process is nonetheless worthwhile. Welcoming congregations not only can learn how "to manage conflict creatively," they may also become aware of people other than gays and lesbians who might not feel comfortable in their midst: "young adults, singles, apartment–dwellers, single parents, and married people whose spouses may not attend church." (It is encouraging to see that the Church, hitherto unconscionably indifferent to their pain, is at last expanding its ministry to apartment–dwellers. But what, one cannot help but ask, of those who live in duplexes?)
The press summary notes, finally, that welcoming congregations often move on to "open discussion of other issues related to gays and lesbians in church life, including the issue of performing blessing ceremonies for gay and lesbian couples and the issue of ordaining gays and lesbians." (The ELCA, as the report does not mention, currently opposes both practices.) All this, presumably, is part of the process whereby welcoming congregations see themselves coming, as the report says, "to a deeper understanding of the gospel."
The evasiveness of the DO report suggests that advocates of homosexuality within the ELCA have learned that in advancing their cause diversionary feints are preferable to frontal assaults. There is nothing in the report that directly engages the moral questions associated with homosexual behavior. Indeed, the report offers the remarkable judgment that "a congregation’s decision to make a public statement of welcoming . . . does not necessarily mean coming to a unified decision about the scriptural and moral issues related to homosexuality." We can just get on with the welcoming, in other words, and worry later about whether what we’re welcoming is morally licit.
Some might object to that way of putting the matter. Why define gay and lesbian people simply according to their sexual practices? But that is precisely the point. Activist gays and lesbians insist on identifying themselves—and being affirmed in that identification within the Christian community—by exactly those labels that refer to their sexual activities. (The phrase "sexual orientation," we have come to learn, is virtually always meant to include behavior as well as inclination.) There is simply no coherent sense—as gays and lesbians themselves understand the situation—in which we can welcome homosexual people as such without welcoming homosexual behavior. On this issue, there can be no bracketing or deferment of moral considerations.
The people who draw up documents like the DO report, we can assume, understand all this, but prefer that it not be brought to general attention. (If that seems uncharitable, consider the alternative explanation, which is that they cannot think clearly.) They have learned that the majority of ELCA Lutherans do not share their view that homosexual behavior is a matter of moral indifference. What they presently cannot get church members to affirm, they hope at least to get them to tolerate. Alexander Pope long ago described what follows from there: "We first endure, then pity, then embrace."
This is not, of course, all there is to say about this issue. The Church must attempt, as prudently and winsomely as it can, to persuade gays and lesbians of the wisdom—indeed, the self–evident givenness—of Christian teaching on this matter. It will not in all cases succeed. When it does not, the Church must exercise pastoral care that combines moral clarity and precision with the infinite patience and compassion that the gospel mandates. It must make of sexual immorality—of any sort—neither a triviality nor a fixation.
What the Church must never do—and what, sadly, the DO report does—is indulge in willful sentimental evasion and obfuscation. The report once again reminds us that, where moral discernment is required, if you can only say something Nice, it is better to say nothing at all.