Fish Out of Water is a new film about Biblical interpretation and homosexuality. It is provocative and thoughtful. See more at: www.fishoutofwaterfilm.com.
The following remarks are from Rev. Erik Christensen, who was invited to address the ELCA Conference of Bishops during their meeting last weekend. Rev. Christensen was given voice in the meeting and asked to respond to their deliberations regarding a potential rite for pastors who were extraordinarily ordained and credentialed by Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries. With just a few moments to prepare, Rev. Christensen offered these words.
(Rev. Christensen pictured at left, leading worship at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church of Logan Square, where he serves).
Good afternoon, my name is Erik Christensen. I’m a pastor here in Chicago at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church of Logan Square. I did my candidacy in the Southeastern Iowa Synod. I’m a son of St. John’s Lutheran Church in Des Moines, Iowa. And I did my seminary training both at Candler School of Theology at Emory, but also at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia. I interned on the Jersey Shore at Holy Cross Lutheran Church in Toms River.
I want to say it’s really wonderful to be asked to speak. I really thank you for recognizing the privilege that it is to be allowed to speak to all of you and I thank you for extending that privilege. And I just want to say what you all know is true, but if I say it, it makes it a little less true for me in the moment…this is scary (laughter). So I just needed to say that so I could have permission to shake a little bit in my shoes.
I’ve often been afraid of what bishops think about the work that we do in ELM. And often I’ve been afraid because the way that our relationship has worked out historically has not been so good. But I really enjoy being in the room for the conversation right now because it builds my trust in the shared commitment to the Gospel that all of us have. And I can hear the sensitive, and the probing, and the discerning questions that are being asked, and it builds my trust in the church that we are becoming together.
A lot has been said, a lot has been written about the authority by which ELM has understood its ordinations to take place. So I actually don’t want to say too much about that at this particular moment, because I’m hearing a lot of that language filtering into your conversation. It’s really clear that this room of brothers and sisters has a really strong grasp on the myriad precedents, and that precedent alone isn’t really what we’re discussing here. And so I’ll be happy to entertain any questions, and others would as well, about that question of authority and by what authority we did those ordinations. But I think most of those points have been raised by you in these conversations already.
The contribution I want to make at this point in the conversation is to this question, “Why ordination?” Or why not ordination? How important is that word, really?
I want to lift up an image of my year at the Lutheran School in Philadelphia. I entered candidacy in Southeastern Iowa Synod, I made it through approval, I made it through endorsement, I made it through internship. I completed my M.Div and was in my Lutheran year in Philly and halfway through my Lutheran year, I was removed from ELCA candidacy by the candidacy committee in Southeastern Iowa Synod. And they attached a statement to their decision saying, “the only reason we have for denying approval for ministry is this policy that the church currently holds, and should that policy be removed, we would enthusiastically endorse this person.”
And there it was, I was denied, and I was no longer a candidate. And I was trying to make a decision about whether or not the ELM process had integrity, whether or not it was something I could offer my vocation up to, and put my faith in. So I went to my favorite professor and someone who is still a mentor in his writing and his speaking, Gordon Lathrop, and I said, “I’m trying to understand, Dr. Lathrop, whether or not I should offer myself to this process. Could I really understand an ordination that takes place without the full endorsement of the denomination as a full ordination?”
And he said, “No. That would be a broken ordination.” And I was confused.
And then I said, “Well, Dr. Lathrop, what about your ordination?”
And he said, “No, mine is broken as well. My ordination is also broken by the status of the body that we have right now and all of our ordinations won’t be completed until this reconciliation takes place.”
And so, I welcome the laying on of hands. I welcome the blessing with oil and with prayer and with every other form of public blessing that this church has to offer and I don’t think that “ordination” is the right word for that. Because I’ve been ordained. And you’ve been ordained. And our ordinations have been broken. And the healing and the reconciliation that needs to take place right now is contextual.
And I’m not ignorant to the fact that ordination is a word…it’s so nice to hear that there are these four different words, there are plenty of other words and they are not understood the same way at all moments in the life of the church and the history of the church. And so in one sense, “don’t get too hung up on it.” It’s ordination, it’s not ordination. But at this moment in the church, and in this context, it’s a word that does have importance. It’s a word that does have meaning, now, for us.
And so, if the purpose of the rite that you are trying to craft, if the purpose of this moment is to announce reconciliation and healing, then it will be important what word you choose. Not because that word always means that thing and always has meant that thing, but because you want that word to do something right now. And if you want it to do that thing, if you want the word, if you want the rite to do that thing that is healing and reconciliation in the body, that heals my broken ordination and your broken ordination, then affirm the ordinations that we’ve received. Affirm the calls that we’ve received.
Let’s bless one another in this ministry together.
In this morning’s reading, Paul writes to the people of Corinth about orderly worship.
It was a confusing time. People were feeling liberated. They were casting off some of the former ways and trying out new ones. And things were getting a little out of hand.
When Pastor Blair invited me to share some words for this morning’s chapel, he offered me the chance to select my own text, one that might more closely resonate with the work I do through Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries. And you know, at first, I was a little tempted.
There are a lot of great texts in the Bible that help talk about the experience of gay and lesbian Christians, which is the focus of my work. But it turns out this text asks one of the chief questions facing me in my work with Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries and facing many of us in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America these days.
“What should be done then, my friends?” Paul asks the Corinthians.
Things can feel pretty uncertain when you are starting something new and the rules aren’t clear.
And it’s especially confusing if you’ve been operating under a set of assumptions that are now called into question. Let’s imagine we’re in Stewartville, Minnesota in 1985 and the Vagts kids and the Olson kids are out back doing what we did many summer evenings…playing Kick the Can.
We knew that you counted to 20 and then yelled “ready or not!” signaling the start of the game. Most kids knew that. We also knew that climbing the fence next to the Olson’s solar panels, which led from the front to the backyard, was strictly off limits. It was a cruel fate of geography, as it prevented us from making a clear circle around the house, and woe came to the kid who made a clean breakaway, only to find she was trapped up against the chain link with nowhere to go.
We also knew the tree house was off limits during these kinds of games (my brother Thatcher has received too many concussions), and the secret escape route was between the garage and the neighbor’s fence. We knew our limitations and our freedom. So it was very frustrating each time some new kids would play with us and not know these special rules. The game would just be underway and some kid would scale the fence, or go in the tree house, or call someone out for using the garage escape route (which was permitted).
And someone would yell “TIMES!” stopping the game to clarify the rules. And then another would yell “TIMES!” to get further clarification on the new rule and on this would go on until someone would inevitably call “TIMES!” in order to make a rule that no one else could call “Times.”
Isn’t this how it always went? A few people would want to quit in frustration because in our attempts to make and clarify all of the rules, the game itself would be entirely missed.
The ELCA Churchwide Assembly voted last August to approve a social statement that actually speaks in positive terms about gay and lesbian people, and then agreed they want to start recognizing gay and lesbian relationships, and then agreed they wanted the ELCA to change its 20 year old policy requiring gay pastors to be celibate.
Well, it made a few people want to yell, “TIMES!” And it makes the Church want to create some order.
When faced with questions of order, Paul could get very precise. This text makes for a comical read if you read it carefully. First of all, there is the subject matter–speaking in tongues. I mean this is pretty far out stuff for Lutherans. Come to think of it, we probably are more ready to talk about a married gay pastor than we are for people bursting out into prophetic speech in the middle of church.
But if speaking in tongues were to happen in worship, as it was at that time, Paul has some ideas about how to keep things from getting out of control “If anyone speaks in a tongue, let there be only two, or at most three, and each in turn; and let one interpret.”
My personal favorite verse from this section comes a bit later…”If a revelation is made to someone else sitting nearby, let the first person be silent.” I find this particular verse helpful, not only for worship but also at the movie theater.
In chaos, we seek order. Paul tells us that in chaos, God seeks peace. One way we achieve this peace in community is by making rules, by calling “Times.” We’ve all experienced this. Certainly, the communities Paul writes to were experiencing this. There are times when putting things in order creates peace. And then there are times, where we think we are creating order, but the result ends up being the opposite.
We don’t have to look any further that this morning’s text. And I just have to take pause again and thank Pastor Blair for inviting me to give the chapel talk this morning. How could I resist talking about a passage that speaks against women speaking in church?
Let’s talk about this section of today’s text–the part that just pops up rather out of context and is mysteriously in parentheses. You maybe didn’t know that–but the whole section against women speaking in church is in parentheses. Is it an aside? The parentheses are like a whisper. Some theologians suggest these passages are editorial commentary written by someone else.
What to do with passages like this one? With order like this kind? Some theologians try to explain what Paul was writing about saying this passage is not about preaching; rather it was about gossip or idle “chit-chat.” And so on.
My reading of this section is that there was some sense of disorder and someone wanted to make a rule about it. Someone called a “Times.”
How are we to tell the difference? What is simply creating order for the good of the community? And what are rules that become barriers between God and God’s people? The bible has some great stories and lessons for this question, and it’s something Paul hints at in this text.
“Let all things be done for the building up,” Paul writes. Could this be our guide?
“Let all things be done for the building up.”
Since August, I have been working with the ELCA as they try to figure out how the gay and lesbian pastors who are on the Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries roster (and other partnered gay and lesbian clergy) will join the ELCA roster. Many people believed this happened months ago–that it happened automatically.
After all, the movement that is Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries was born from ELCA congregations and ELCA pastors and seminarians who were soon to become ELCA candidates for ordination. For twenty years, this movement has developed a parallel candidacy process based on the ELCA’s. The actions of this movement are rooted in the Lutheran confessions. For twenty years, this movement has worked with ELCA congregations willing to break policy in order to call an openly gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender pastor. This movement is of, about and within the ELCA.
But these times are chaotic, and in chaos we seek order.
And all too often, order comes in the form of rules. This original wound within the ELCA was born from chaos. In the early days of the ELCA there were a few gay seminarians coming out, people started to get anxious, someone called a “TIMES!” and made a rule. “If you are gay, you have to be celibate.” That was the rule. The desire was to create order. Instead, it became oppression and something that has prevented many gifted leaders from serving in the ELCA and many gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people from seeing themselves as full members of our community. “Let all things be done for the building up.” Paul writes.
In August, the wider ELCA community started to see what the ELM community caught on to 20 years ago–the celibacy rule doesn’t fit with Jesus’ vision of God’s kingdom. So now we celebrate the joy that many in the Church are experiencing as its embrace widens further. And we are experiencing the anxiety that wider embrace creates.
Today’s text brings us right to the very chaos we are experiencing today in the ELCA, what shall our church community look like? How shall Christians behave? This is an experience that we share with the earliest followers of Christianity.
Some rules are abandoned when they are no longer relevant: Have you recently tried to remember the maximum number of people permitted to speak in tongues in a given setting?
Some are rejected because they no longer fit: Have you heard a woman preach the good news lately?
Indeed, there are some rules we abandon or reject.
But we do not abandon or reject the Good News.
We ask together in times of chaos, “What should be done then, Friends?” We remember, “Let all things be done for the building up.”
Today’s text brings these ancient messages to us in our present day. As we live into this anxious time in the ELCA, what rules will we create to live out our new understanding of God’s expansive welcome? What chaos are you experiencing today and what rules will you create? Will these rules be grounded in Paul’s message: let all things be done for the building up?
Will the rules we create remember what Paul writes in this verse–this one that especially struck me as I read today’s passage….Paul writes, “let us remember this: for God is a God not of disorder, but of peace.” Paul doesn’t write “God is a God not of disorder, but of order.” No…he writes, “God is a God not of disorder, but of peace.” Let us live into and imagine that peace for our present Church.
And may that peace, which passes all understanding, go with you this morning and beyond in your times of anxiety, and disorder, restoring you. And now renewed, you are freed to share the good news you have heard. Amen.
Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries celebrates, rejoices in, and welcomes the proposed Rite of Reception to the Roster of Ordained Pastors offered this past weekend at the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) Conference of Bishops meeting.
This rite will apply only to those who were extraordinarily ordained and on the ELM roster. Those on the ELM roster who were previously on the ELCA roster and desire to return will enter through a reinstatement process, and those previously on the roster of another church body will enter through a reception process. Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries is hopeful the proposed rite will be approved by the ELCA Church Council April 9-11, opening the door for all ELM pastors who desire to be received onto and reinstated to the roster of the ELCA.
We celebrate the honesty and integrity with which the proposed liturgical rite recognizes the extraordinary ordinations of ELM pastors and reconciles those in ELM and those in the ELCA. We rejoice in the thoughtful and careful deliberation of the bishops of the ELCA. Many expressed their desire to affirm the work of Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries and the ministry of the pastors on its roster.
We express our gratitude to Bishop Mark Hanson, presiding bishop of the ELCA, for his introduction of the proposed rite in which he described his intent by use of three words: “reconciliation, recognize and recognizable.” Bishop Hanson described the ELCA’s desire to be reconciled with the pastors on the ELM roster, the ELCA congregations and ministries they serve, and the community of ELM supporters; a desire to recognize the extraordinary ordinations of ELM pastors; and to do so in a manner that is recognizable to the ELCA’s ecumenical and Lutheran World Federation partners and the denominations with which the ELCA is in full communion partnership.
We thank Bishop Stephen Marsh (Southeast Michigan Synod), pictured left, for his motion to grant voice to a representative of Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries. This rare opportunity to address the Conference of Bishops gave Rev. Erik Christensen the chance to put a face on the proposed rite.
This action recognizes continuing reconciliation between ELM and the ELCA and points us toward reconciliation with the wider church. These acts demonstrate the power of the Holy Spirit and we are hopeful they will lead to continued change and joy for the ELCA and the greater Church.
ELM pastors Rev. Erik Christensen, Rev. Anita Hill and Rev. Jen Nagel, and ELM Executive Director Amalia Vagts represented the organization at the five-day meeting.
Click here for the ELCA press release
Press inquires: Contact Amalia Vagts, Executive Director, 202-744-8396 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
by Rev. Lura Groen.
Lura serves as pastor of Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church, an ELCA congregation in Houston, Texas. Lura is on the roster of Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries. Visit www.gracelutheran-houston.org.
I had coffee recently with a college classmate I hadn’t seen in years. She’s a smart, competent, beautiful, compassionate professional, the kind who alternates between international human rights work, and grant writing in the US for the kind of causes I love to support. We were having a grand time catching up, on, well, everything since college.
When I started telling her about our work through ELM to make ministry possible for people of all sexual orientations and gender identities, she started to tell me about her experience attending a Catholic Church recently with her family. She said a woman had carried the cross down the aisle in the procession, then sat in the front pew for the service. Despite the ridiculous smallness of this token, my friend was taken aback by how powerfully emotional her response was. In fact, she started crying in front of me.
She was visibly embarrassed by this- we were hardly on intimate terms, this was a public location, and weeping isn’t generally seen as appropriate in these situations. Besides, her head said this was such a little thing to rejoice over. Given the denial of female ministry in the Catholic Church, the history of Catholic Doctrine being used, and too often written, to demean and restrict women, why does one female body in a procession (not even making it to the altar!) matter?
It matters because it is powerful, powerful, who leads worship. Which bodies are in front of congregations sends resounding messages about which bodies are able to approach God. It matters because if certain types of people-people like you- aren’t fit for ministry, what does that say about you? It matters because we read into our worship leadership ideas about what bodies are loved by and close to God. For better or worse, who is in ministry tells us what bodies are holy.
Despite my friend’s embarrassment, I was glad to have shared the moment with her. In fact, it was a treasure, a gift that has been sustaining me through a difficult few weeks. Because she reminded me how important this work is. Whenever I’m tempted to think this is only about me, about those of us called to ministry, I remember what message our work sends to all the people of God. I celebrate that we have put our bodies in front of worship- that people who look and love and live like us, and people who love differently than us, have been given the message that their lives and loves and bodies are worthy of God’s love too.
And, it being Lent, I remember that I have work to do making that message even broader. I remind myself that there are bodies who aren’t receiving that message as well in my church. That I need to invite people with bodies of different colors than mine into leadership more, and people whose bodies have disabilities different than mine. Because all bodies, lives, and loves, are called by God.