If there is anything that could be said to be a catchphrase of 2022’s Churchwide Assembly, it would probably be “One million new, young, and diverse.” There is so much that went on during this year’s assembly that will reverberate throughout the church for years to come, but the implementation of the Future Church design, especially the portion of it most concerned with recruiting new members, seemed to occupy many discussions.
As much as we must celebrate the accomplishments that came from Churchwide Assembly, there are also many things we can and should improve on not just as a church, but as the Church. Accessibility continues to be an unaddressed need at the event. From translation needs, lack of planning and accommodation for people of a range of disabilities, and getting this accomplished while being culturally competent. There were several times when people witnessed anti-black, anti-indigenous, anti-latine, and anti-trans sentiments or expressions both from the assembly and those leading.
It is ELM’s belief that this desire to recruit new members, should it have any hope of success, must be able to first define who it is seeking to recruit and what the ELCA has to offer them. Given our current demographics, “young” could mean anyone under 50. And it is rare to find an LGBTQIA2S+ person, or a BIPOC person, or a disabled person in the ELCA who hasn’t yet been told patronizingly how special their “new voice” was to a community or event, or who hasn’t been saddled with tons of unpaid labor to explain to others what it’s like being “diverse.” Aka “Not a white, cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied person.” There is our carefully-defined norm, and then there is, well, everybody else- “Diverse folks.” Being seen and desired only as a counterpoint to the norm does not land as complementary to many in the groups to whom the ELCA claims to want to reach out.
But should the efforts to beckon to such people actually succeed, what will they find when they enter our doors? Will they be welcomed as true siblings, “all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body” (1 Corinthians 12:13)? Will they be treated as ones with an equal inheritance to the kin-dom of God, or will they be tokenized, fetishized, and stripped of power and agency as they have been in the church for so long- e.g. the ELCA Listening Panel and their recommendations. ELM will be listening closely to our constituents (especially to those embodying multiple marginalized identities) and members of other historically marginalized groups as the efforts continue to identify how we can best use our collective power to create a church that is worthy and ready to receive those it claims to welcome.
One thing we know as ELM is that if the ELCA’s “One million new, young, and diverse”dream will ever become a reality, the ELCA must address our sins of racism and “bound conscience” (the four pillar definition of “bound conscience” can be found on pages 19-21 in this document). As Lutherans, we confess our participation in these systems, yet we continually fall short in the ways to overcome these systems of oppression. In 2019, the Churchwide Assembly adopted a formal letter of repentance to commit to examine the church’s complicity in slavery, and to acknowledge “the ELCA’s perpetuation of racism.” At the 2022 Churchwide Assembly, Bishop Eaton formally apologized to the worshiping community of Iglesia Luterana Santa María Peregrina for both individual and institutional racist harm done to the congregation & the Latinè community. To quote the words of the ELCA in the 2019 formal apology to the African Descent community, “An apology is only empty words and promises unless it is accompanied by action, which is grounded in prayer, education, and soul-searching repentance. We trust that God can make all things new.” While in many ways the ELCA continues to perpetuate racist harm, it has begun to confess this harm ploddingly.
Paraphrasing Paul, as Bishop Eaton referenced in her apology and often reflects on, we are all one body with many members…the eye cannot say to the hand I have no need for you. Yet, “bound conscience” does just that- denying the sacredness of queer bodies in the ELCA. Queer people in the ELCA deserve an apology and behavior consistent with repentance for the harm caused by “bound conscience” and policies like “Vision and Expectations.”
ELM stands firmly with marginalized communities within the ELCA and we recognize the steps the ELCA has begun to take to live into Paul’s vision of one body. The ELCA has confessed and continues to repent in some ways the harm we caused to parts of the body regarding racism, slowness to affirm women clergy, plus a multitude of other harm.
The ELCA has yet to take steps to affirm the parts of the body that are queer.
As Lutherans, we often reflect on Luther’s words when he said, “A theology of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theology of the cross calls the thing what it actually is.” In ELM’s belief statement we say, “We speak honestly, even when it’s hard.” So when a “new, young and diverse” voting member from the Southeastern synod stood up and proposed to reconsider “bound conscience” to be done before the 2025 Churchwide Assembly, the queer community held its collective breath in a flurry of emotions. Bishop Strickland followed the voting member from his synod with a stirring speech where he spoke to one instance as Bishop when he said the words “the Body of Christ, given for you,” and the congregant answered, “Not from you, Bishop.”
This is both shocking and not an uncommon reality for some rostered leaders in the ELCA. Many queer-rostered ministry leaders experience this harm in the ELCA with little recourse because of “bound conscience.”
A church that yearns for “one million new, young & diverse” voices cannot reach its goal of one million by withholding the diverse voices it yearns for from entering the pews and the pulpits. ELM urges the committee tasked with reconsidering “bound conscience” to include “new, young, and diverse” voices and those that have been most harmed by “bound conscience” to be invited to the table and most importantly that the church will listen and take actions based on the recommendations of these “new, young & diverse” voices.
It is time for “bound conscience” to go- it is time for all parts of the body to be affirmed for its beauty, accountable for its faults, and celebrated for its existence. It is time for the ELCA’s pattern of “empty words” be transformed into God’s promise of “empty tombs” that God’s love cannot be bound. It is meant to be in the world with our church sharing this good news and our collective gifts with the world. Amen.
Expect more news regarding this opportunity for our denomination to repent and restore relationship with the LGBTQIA+ community. Your prayers and support will change the world.
-Your partner in ministry- the ELM Board & Staff