Bishop Martin Wells asked those who attended the 2003 Churchwide Assembly in Milwaukee, Wis., to summarize our experiences at churchwide for the benefit of our folks here in the Eastern Washington - Idaho Synod. Here is what I sent to him.– Lou Hesse, Moses Lake, Wash. [A layman serving on the Sexuality Task Force of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA)]
First of all, I would like to thank the voting members of the Eastern Washington - Idaho synod for electing me to go as a voting member to the 2003 Churchwide Assembly (CWA) in Milwaukee, Wis. It was an interesting experience and gave me several new insights that should prove helpful on my work for the church on the Sexuality Task Force.
A highlight of the assembly for me was developing closer relationships with other folk. I personally had a number of conversations with people from all over the country about the sexuality issues and other matters of churchwide significance. It was also wonderful to get to know the other members of our "delegation" (although we are not delegates, but voting members, we were always reminded).
Ultimately I think that our personal relationships with our Lord and our neighbors are more meaningful to our faith, and are really what our lives in Christ are all about.
There were many spirits at work in Milwaukee. I arrived late at the assembly due to prior commitments and ended up missing opening worship, but arriving early for lunch. Some of us ended up at a table with an Hispanic fellow who got to telling us about the difficulty of getting a pastor to serve their community. The gist of the conversation was that because of issues of power, wealth, etc., his folks had only had communion eight times in 15 years, because they couldn't get a pastor to preside. Some of us were appalled to the point of telling him to gather the community and have the community choose one of their own to preside at the table. This was probably the most Spirit-filled moment for me at Churchwide, and though it was consistent with our synodical position and Luther's writings on lay presidency, what we told him to do was a clear violation of ELCA policy. The Hispanic fellow thanked us and said the Spirit had guided us to his table.
As to assembly action itself, I think a different spirit prevailed. On questions involving the decentralization of power and authority, I consistently voted for empowering the congregational or synodical expressions of the church. This Churchwide Assembly, however, chose not to share power with anyone.
The ELCA leadership seems to have a different perspective on leadership and power than I do. Power is to be tightly held by "leaders" because, as was stated in the debate several times, congregations or synods "would not vote the same" on these issues. I was surprised by the open, prideful, arrogance at Churchwide, where the opinion that the spirit works most significantly through them is dominant. This kind of thinking I would expect from the Papacy, but I was shocked at finding it so prevalent at Churchwide. In my view, when power is more important than servanthood, we are dealing with the spirit of anti-Christ.
A vote was taken on whether or not to delay the 2005 recommendations from the Sexuality Task Force regarding homosexual practice until after the 2007 vote on a social statement on sexuality in general. While this has much to commend it from the idea of establishing general principles before moving to specific questions, I voted against changing the timeline.
During the presentation on the ELCA budget, a pair of graphs was displayed which showed trends in national membership and benevolence.
Though unstated, it was clear that every time the church has not given a firm "no" to matters concerning homosexual practice, we suffer an increasing rate of membership and benevolence loss. Likewise, when we reaffirmed a more traditional stance regarding homosexual practice in 1994, membership loss slowed and benevolence actually increased. The longer this question is left unresolved, the more damage is done to the church.
As Bishop Hanson pointed out in his final address, the next two years may be the most difficult years the ELCA will experience since its formation. If the issues under consideration mean anything to you, please make your voice heard as clearly as possible at all levels and expressions of the church.
On a number of other issues, the Churchwide Assembly continued to behave as one voting member from Pennsylvania put it, "as the left wing of the Democratic Party gathered in prayer." Implicit in the positions taken in the area of government policy advocacy is the idea that no true Christian could possibly be a political conservative. For all of the talk of "inclusion," the ELCA has a lot of exclusionary policy.
As an example, our new social statement on Health Care calls for all of us to advocate for universal health care.
I'm not a fan of top-down management programs, whether they be Soviet five-year plans for agriculture, the new ELCA evangelism strategy, or strategic plan. I opposed these types of measures that mandate certain policies and actions from local congregations without significant input or empowering of the local expressions. Local decision-makers are nearly always better versed in local options to deal with issues than some far-away person in Chicago or Washington, D.C., might be.
There was a lot of talk of "community," "unity," "inclusion," "advocacy," but I didn't hear much about repentance, one's personal relationship with Jesus Christ, or a need to proclaim the Good News of the death and resurrection of our Lord for the forgiveness of our sins.
Indeed, it was only by a late amendment that "Bible study" was included as an element of the Churchwide Evangelism Strategy. There was plenty of choreographed pomp and pageantry, and people seemed sincerely pious, but ultimately I was disappointed and disturbed by my first time experience at a Churchwide Assembly.