The Churchwide Assembly (CWA) of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) took place in Minneapolis this past week. It got more press than such gatherings usually get, mainly because one of the agenda items was whether to "roster" gay and lesbian pastors who are in monogamous, publicly-committed relationships. The assembly took some other noteworthy actions this week too, though those didn't get as much attention as the rostering issue. (Rostering basically means that a person is deemed eligible and qualified to be called as pastor by a congregation.)
Anyway, I paid some attention to the the proceedings at the CWA this week for a variety of reasons, one of which is that I'm a former ELCA Lutheran. I think the gathering merits mention for six reasons.
1. Openness and transparency. Most, if not all, of the plenary sessions were streamed live, which meant that anyone with broadband, anywhere, could watch the proceedings as they happened. We saw women and men, pastors, bishops and laypeople speaking and listening, praying and debating, struggling, laughing, crying, voting, grieving, rejoicing and all the other things that people do when they're trying to honestly engage one another around important matters. The light of day shone on the proceedings throughout, and the discourse was remarkable for its prayerfulness, calm, order, fearlessness, and honesty. It was pretty much the opposite of the Tea Party or talk radio model of public discourse. It also made me wish my adopted branch of the faith could see its way clear to working this way. We could use some of this aggiornamento.
2. Use of technology. As I said above, there was live streaming of the plenary sessions, plus on-the-button closeups of speakers at numerous microphones, with their names captioned below. The sound was good, the video was good, and it all seemed to work with flawless consistency throughout. Speakers had a certain allotted time, and the minute they reached it their mike was cut and the spotlight withdrawn. Whoever directed all of that deserves high praise. I understand from some of the twittering that there was discussion about allowing laptops at the next CWA, which is in 2017. I expect that will be the norm by then, however.
3. Use of web and social media. The ELCA website, in addition to streaming the plenary sessions live, was fresh and current all week, with relevant documents posted within a few hours of their adoption. There was an official ELCA Twitter stream and several synod streams, plus a LOT of individual participants and observers posting tweets to three main hashtags: #CWA09 , #ELCA , and #goodsoil09 . (The latter is a group advocating for inclusion of gay and lesbian persons as rostered pastors.) I especially appreciated the tireless efforts of Susan Hogan, who was behind the @pglutherans Twitter stream. Her spot-on comments and links ran in real time from morning till night. This is a great use of social media, and again, served to keep it all very transparent and visible. And again, I noted on Twitter that there was some sort of attempt to ban cell phones at one point. I'm not sure if that went anywhere, but it was greeted with strong protest from several youth pastors on Twitter. Texting is the medium of choice for certain demographics, after all!
4. Process. I watched some of the debate around a couple of the issues during the week, and it was conducted under an interesting model. It always began with prayer and Bible study. (I didn't ever watch a whole session, so I'm not sure how proposals and topics were announced or presented. I mainly tuned in to some of the debates and the voting.) Anyway, apparently people signed up to speak at certain microphones, which were designated red (against) or (green) for. If someone wished to speak on the topic under consideration, she or he got in a line at the proper microphone. The presiding bishop, Mark Hanson, called speakers by their microphone number, which made it completely random and emminently fair. Each person had 3 minutes to speak. When they had spoken for two minutes, a timer appeared on the screen and counted down the last 59 seconds. When it got to zero, the sound was cut and the spotlight was shut off, even in mid-word. This happened on a few occasions while I watched, but not as much as I would have expected. People were able to say what they needed to say in 3 minutes for the most part, and the process prevented any one person or point of view from monopolizing the conversation. Again, emminently fair and random. Every 20 minutes the debate would stop, and the entire assembly would pray for about 5 minutes. At one point the bishop noted that this was being done in order to "keep the Spirit moving among us." He asked people to refrain from clapping, booing, or expressing strong emotions in response to speakers or voting results, and from what I could tell by watching the video stream, this was followed. Certainly some of the debates and votes did elicit strong reactions, but by holding them in during the session, it seemed to me that the space remained a safe one in which to share and consider things honestly and without fear.
5. The decisions themselves. Besides the sexuality statement and policies, the ELCA also entered into full communion with the United Methodist Church. Read about that here. Click here to see other decisions. Great care was taken to make respectful room for disagreement on social statements and policies. I hope that the rostering decisions will not result in a split for the ELCA. People on all sides of the issues have sincere, deeply held beliefs about their positions, and to me, looking in from the outside, it looks as if there is room for a wide spectrum of beliefs and practices. Again, something my branch of the faith could learn from. I do think the rostering policies rectify an injustice that goes against the grain of the Gospel. I was especially mindful of S.A. this week, who died in 1991 just after earning an M.Div at Luther Seminary in St. Paul. This is what she hoped and worked for, and she would have been so happy to see it come to pass at last.
6. The pastoral response of Bishop Mark Hanson. His good-natured, impartial handling of the proceedings made clear the authenticity of his call. Especially, though, his remarks after the hard, hard debate and vote on the last rostering policy were a model of pastoral empathy ordered toward unity and reconciliation. They are not long, and I'd urge you to click here to read them. What you come to first is a letter Bishop Hanson wrote after the Assembly. That's not the pastoral remarks. You'll have to scroll to the end of the letter to get the link to the pastoral remarks. I'll put a better link here later if I can find one.