Minneapolis Star-Tribune, 8 May 04:

Bishop Rogness: A Q&A session about the ELCA and human sexuality

By Martha Sawyer Allen
Star Tribune

Bishop Peter Rogness looked out at his church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), and wondered whether there was a way for his denomination to vote on human sexuality issues without tearing itself apart. He wrote an e-mail message to the pastors in his St. Paul Area Synod wondering out loud whether the church couldn't find a way to agree to disagree, to keep all sides of the issues within the denomination without creating winners and losers. The e-mail has taken on a life of its own and has been passed around the denomination.

The ELCA human sexuality final report is due in January, and the 5.2 million member denomination's general assembly votes in August 2005 on whether to ordain sexually active gays and lesbians to the clergy and whether to authorize a rite to bless same-sex couples.

Rogness met with the Star Tribune in his office overlooking the State Capitol:

Q. Why did you send out the e-mail to all the pastors in the St. Paul Synod?

A. It was a way of trying to encourage people to begin thinking about how we can engage this timetable and decisions in a healthy way. I've heard two sentiments: a real sense of foreboding of how destructive [the vote] is going to be, and the other a huge sentiment of what I call the large middle of our church that says 'can't we find another way to engage this issue without going to war with ourselves, without declaring winners and losers.' That desire to find another way is perceptive, faithful, churchly and, I think, possible.

Q. Possible? Virtually every Protestant denomination has been torn apart by these issues. How can the ELCA avoid it?

A. Because I think a heavy majority want something that is not destructive to come out of this in the first place. Secondly, Lutherans, out of everybody, ought to be able to live with diversity on an issue like this. We're the church of grace alone, faith alone, Christ alone, scripture alone.

Q. But wouldn't people say it is exactly about scripture?

A. Martin Luther referred to scripture as the manger that holds the Christ. We don't worship scripture. We look to it as the revelation of Christ, of coming to know God, not as a proof text for every issue that arises. We don't argue about whether the manger was made of oak, or cedar or pine. Lutherans are clear it has never been about whether we get our theology just right, whether we get our behavior just right, whether we order our church just right. It's all about the fact the church is God and we are brought into it by grace alone, not by having to get anything right. That's who Lutherans are. I'd go a step further and say I want people who feel strongly on both sides of this issue to say they recognize how enriched the church is by the presence of the other. I don't want liberals to walk if the church doesn't act soon enough. I don't want conservatives to walk if the church isn't adamantly where it is enough. Conservatives are being moved by a fidelity to the authority of scripture and their willingness in their view to stand at odds with the culture. And I think those are very healthy things. Liberals are being motivated by a desire that the church be willing to reexamine itself. We're a church of the Reformation and to rethink its own positions, particularly in light of sensitivity to people. That's a marvelous, life-giving strain in the life of the church. So what anchors the passion on both sides are both wonderful contributions to the life of the church, and the church is poorer without them and richer if each can say to the other we think on this issue you're wrong, but we understand where you're coming from and finally we can live together because it's Christ that gives us our life and not our agreements.

Q. Are you arguing for some kind of local option for congregations?

A. The tension is between understanding the church as not being at its best in legislation, but recognizing we have to have standards and rules that define us organizationally. Any term like local option carries all kind of meaning in people's minds, so I hesitate to use that word, although what I argue for is for us to be graceful enough in the way we operate as a church that we can allow congregations that feel passionately about what they need to be doing in order to respond to their mission some leeway to do that. We need to find ways to trust each other in ways that we don't insist we all behave the way each other behaves.

Q. In one part of your e-mail you said, "Can we let otherwise qualified candidates be approved if there are congregations wanting to call them ..." Shouldn't then, Anita Hill, be a full-fledged member of the ELCA clergy roster?

A. I think we are strengthened by having accountability to each other and pondering together what are standards that build up the life of the whole church. It's good for us to wrestle together for what kind of standards we establish. As long as it is always with a recognition that our vitality doesn't come from our standards, it comes from our faith. How can we trust each other, and lead each other into reexamining old forms and being open to new forms?

Q. Should she be placed on the ELCA clergy roster?

A. To flat-out render an opinion on that would be to create a firestorm where there doesn't need to be one while we're in these processes. I say without reservation, when one becomes familiar with Anita as a person and the ministry of St. Paul Reformation nobody can argue that a good thing isn't happening there. Anita's a fine pastor. The faith is being proclaimed and with vitality, and people's lives are being touched in that place.

Q. What do you say to the Solid Rock Lutherans who say she doesn't meet the standard for ordination now? Where do you draw the line of ordained ministry?

A. The Solid Rock Lutherans are right. It's not in the rules right now. However, because this congregation and other places have seen some good things done by people who don't meet the standard is precisely why we launched this study and reflection process. We're asking, 'Is the current policy serving us well?'

Q. And you think it isn't? Are you sorry it's coming to a vote at all?

A. I'm sorry we're thinking of it solely as a legislative, vote-dominated issue. I'm saying let's find a way that recognizes that a vote isn't going to change anyone's mind. A vote isn't going to suddenly reshape the landscape of the church. Let's acknowledge we're in different places and it's OK to be in different places. Clearly, we have a higher expectation of conduct of those who hold the pastoral office than those who gather in a community of faith, which is why we're examining that issue at all. Up to now we've had a policy that homosexual persons in committed relationships cannot be ordained. We've decided to take a vote on that in 2005. I'm saying we can establish any timeline we want; but when we vote in 2005 we won't change anyone's mind. We have very thoughtful, deeply committed people who have come to very different conclusions on that. So is it appropriate to give the impression with a vote that it has changed the position of the church? The legislative timetable isn't serving us well right now. Can't we say there needs to be a time when congregations like St. Paul Ref are given some time for the whole church to see what comes of this? What's God saying to us?

Q. In practical terms what would you like to see happen in Orlando? Do you want a resolution that says we agree to disagree?

A. I refrain from talking about what I want to have happen. That just feeds the notion that this has been decided, that there are some movers and shakers who have already decided. I think it has been an amazingly open process, and I don't know what will come out. The [human sexuality study] task force is an excellent group of people. They're going to make some recommendations in plenty of time for the church to decide on specifics in 2005. I'm hoping to build a ground swell of support for the notion of finding a way of simply living together in our diversity and continuing to listen to each other.

Q. You said in your e-mail that two areas were 'core stuff' -- working for the poor and evangelism. Yet, sex is what inflames people more than anything. How is it not core stuff?

A. At this period in history it is core stuff for a lot of people, but you can't build a case in scripture or out of the 2,000 years of church history for this as what should define the Christian faith. The church has always talked about sharing the good news of Christ. And the clarity of the New Testament and the Old Testament on how faithful people live in the world as caregivers to the poor. There has never been a time in history when the church hasn't been clear about that as an essential Christian response. Fifty years ago it was communism that had everyone inflamed. My church, the old ELC, was debating whether to join the World Council of Churches because it was full of Communists. That wasn't core stuff.

Q. What do you hope your e-mail produces?

A. I hope it fosters more respectful, thoughtful church conversations that seek to embrace and even celebrate people who bring divergent views.

Q. What are you going to say to the people on both sides of the issue, the poles, who want you to agree with them?

A. If the poles want only a response where their view exclusively becomes the official view of the church, then I would be saying I think I'm arguing for a position other than yours. I want to argue for a response by the church that will say this church is enriched by a self-understanding that includes both of these perspectives.