Discover more from a sorcerer's notebook
A Framework For Tomorrow
A plan to resurrect the ELCA. Or kill it.
“Things are different now. The contemporary church is so often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the arch supporter of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church's often vocal sanction of things as they are.” - The Rev. Dr Martin Luther King jr-1963-A Letter from a Birmingham Jail.
Beloved, I want to ask you quite seriously: has anything changed in any real way since the good Rev. Dr wrote these words on toilet paper and scraps? Set aside if you think I have been “right” over the last few years. Or even your own sense of where we stand as a church and re-read the quote above, like it’s the first time in your life you have seen it. It feels so incredibly true after the last few years. Even when the institution says the right thing, it still upholds the power structures of a soul sick nation. Even when it tries to do the right thing.
The institution knows it is completely out of lockstep with at least 1/3rd of its congregations and leaders, as well as where they are theologically and yes: politically. If you think Jesus wasn't political I am not wasting my breath on this argument. This article isn't for you. Peace be with you.
This plan is based on a singular principle from the ELCA constitution. It is our first organizing principle, and as you know I love those. It is section 5 entitled “Principles of Organization”. The first sentence, in the first paragraph, explains the very first and most important organizing principle at our formation as a church. Section 5.01. of the ELCA Constitution states: “The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America shall be one church.”
This is important because it is really the principle that holds everything else in that section, the independence in relationship with a synod a congregation enjoys, a synod in relationship with the wider church enjoys, and us each as members, leaders, and the faithful. It is also the same principle which allows a Bishop, Synod, or the Church itself authority to govern us. It is in the endeavor to be One Church we give ourselves over to the authority of the church.
A reasonable conclusion is that if it violates the first principle of organizing, anything not lived in the Spirit of “We shall be one church”, is thus not applicable. You may say that's not all that paragraph says. You are right. Here it is in total, emphasis added by me:
“The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America shall be one church. This church recognizes that all power and authority in the Church belongs to the Lord Jesus Christ, its head. Therefore, all actions of this church by congregations, synods, and the churchwide organization shall be carried out under his rule and authority in accordance with the following principles”.
So again to recap: the section on organizing principles of the ELCA, in the first sentence, is a principle. It is followed by another principle, where more of our principles come from, before it lays out the principles of the church. Here are two more key sections to brush up on for what I am about to suggest:
5.01b- “This church, in faithfulness to the Gospel, is committed to be an inclusive church in the midst of division in society. Therefore, in their organization and outreach, the congregations, synods, and churchwide units of this church shall seek to exhibit the inclusive unity that is God’s will for the Church.”
5.01b literally speaks to our time. It's also the 4th most important organizing principle. The 3rd most important being our confessions, actually. The principle we get from this is that the church is not being itself—or being the church—if they ever make a move that: contradicts the call to be one church. We recognized in 1988 that the call meant inclusivity.
The next section I want to look at real quick is about lay people and leaders. 5.01g-h state:
5.01g- “A layperson is a person who is not on the roster of Ministers of Word and Sacrament or the roster of Ministers of Word and Service of this church.”
5.01h- “Leaders in this church should demonstrate that they are servants by their words, lifestyle, and manner of leadership. Leaders in this church will recognize their accountability to the Triune God, to the whole Church, to each other, and to the organization of this church in which they have been asked to serve.”
Someday we can get into how this is a violation of our confessions theologically, but for our purposes, let's walk away. Legally it is to establish the exact ratios of lay to clergy on important boards, votes, councils etc. It also creates a legal definition for both these categories.
This is the final organizing principle and then I swear I’ll share my plan.
5.01j- “Each assembly, council, committee, board, task force, or other body of the churchwide organization or any churchwide units shall be conclusively presumed to have been properly constituted, and neither the method of selection nor the composition of any such assembly, council, committee, board, task force, or other body may be challenged in a court of law by any person or be used as the basis of a challenge in a court of law to the validity or effect of any action taken or authorized by any such assembly, council, committee, board, task force, or other body.”
Meaning: if we are organized under the principle of one church, under the authority of or name of Jesus Christ, we are following the confession. If we follow the organizing principles—including the means in which the church gives us to redress an issue of unity, inclusivity, or us remaining one—and then they refuse, well, then they are actually in violation of their own constitution and thus have given up all authority. Legally, the church has no authority over us to stop us from fulfilling its own constitution. Section 5.01j is often the weapon of the status quo. Burying anything in a mountain of paperwork, red tape, and byzantine Robert’s Rules technicalities. But section 2.01j is also the cure for what ails this church.
The plan: a special interest conference. A special interest conference as defined by section 8.30-8.31.01
8.30 SPECIAL INTEREST CONFERENCES
.31- “This church cherishes the diversity of cultural and linguistic groups as they are brought together in the geographic synods, recognizing, however, that certain groups, for historical reasons, may be able to meet needs and share resources through special interest conferences, which for the present cannot occur in the regular life within the geographic synods.”
.31.01- “Because of both official and informal international contacts with other churches, the Danish Special Interest Conference, Finnish (Suomi) Special Interest Conference, German Lutheran Conference in North America, and Hungarian Special Interest Conference shall relate to this church under the authority of the presiding bishop of this church through an executive or designated unit as determined by the presiding bishop. Official contacts and relationships of the special interest conferences with leaders and representatives of other churches shall be coordinated through the Office of the Presiding Bishop.”
Now I know this isn't a new plan. Many have tried before. But the truth is this provision, in light of section 5 and the principles of organizing is all we need to really change things. This begs us to ask the question: are you really the church you claim you are?
Is this really one church? Or two churches? One that wants to and is willing to sacrifice it all for the here and now, and one that is obsessed with longevity, legacy, and it’s place in the future.
Here is the thing, section 8 is meant to uphold white supremacist structures by privileging European heritage within the church that is obsessed with its place in the future. It gives them the ability to govern themselves in a way that empowers them and frustrates the institutions, so they would never do away with it. That is, unless they again want to violate the principle of One Church. These key provisions also interact with our LWF contacts, relationships, and sibling Lutheran bodies.
I suggest those of us that want to see something different create a special interest conference for BIPOC, queer peoples, and their accomplice congregations. We know for a fact that there are at least 250 faith communities and leaders that believe in a liberating God, that believe Black lives matter, that brown folks are treated with total respect, that our Indigenous siblings get their land back, and queer folks are welcome home. The historical reasoning for this action is the well documented—and perhaps more importantly church confessed—systemic racism, queerphobia, and transphobia within the ELCA. There are plenty of public statements that back this. The great thing about our church, the one that values growth and sacrifice, is that it does admit and confess. And it does so frequently.
The shared resources are simply the antiracist, queer and trans affirming paradigms we always say we want to create. We are the resource. We can make antiracism training mandatory and yearly. Provide it for one another. We can create standards for queer affirmation that isn’t dangerous. We can create counter systems within the systems. We can create a mutual aid network of churches within the church, and still be a witness to our siblings. We can still be at assembly with snarky comments about justice. Still sharing and growing together. Also: nothing would change for clergy. Same retirement plan. Same healthcare. Same seminaries for your discerning folks.
We can do all this because this isn't schism.
This is all based on an attempt to be one church. So how would it work? Well that's the real question isn't it. I think a good first step is a series of coordinated synod memorials to get the Special Interest conference En Bloc for the next churchwide assembly. This is typically the purview of the churchwide council and while I think it is right and proper we do go see them, this is bigger than just a few dozen people deciding if we are allowed to literally live out the principles of our own constitution.
Simultaneously, a group of us will have to do a deep dive into the current special interest groups, asking them what their relationship is with the representatives appointed by the office of the presiding Bishop. Speaking of presiding Bishop, the election is the same assembly, and what a terrible legacy to leave if we actually show up for this. Alternatively, what a total disaster to walk into as the new chosen servant of this Church. You see for you schism ready folks, the plan for this special interest conference could be easily adapted into a constitution for a new denomination. Hopefully, we would all be gathered at Churchwide assembly anyway to see the memorial through. If the church refuses, or we are voted down, or the constitution is used against us, or the conference of Bishops stonewalls us, or whatever, then nothing is to stop us from walking over to a local church and simply begin that process then and there.
Again this is all in the spirit of: One Church. But if we gather and say “ok church, let us show you what we mean by liberation, but to do that we need to reorganize within your arms” and the church refuses...well, we aren't the ones who are causing schism.
So in case you are thinking of ways to walk away but not throw away the baby with the bathwater, here is a plan I am willing to discuss in detail.*
*If anyone wants to join the team to create the model Synod memorial I’m willing to go as far as that.
Written in Love and Liberation
The Rev. Lenny Duncan +