Friday, October 15, 2010

The Lutherans and the Vanishing Middle Ground

Lutherans in the Middle
 Lutheranism has long represented the middle ground in American Christianity.  Although initially viewed as outside the mainstream of English-speaking Protestantism, German and Scandinavian Lutherans came to join the ranks of other mainline Protestants - especially in the Midwest or the "American Heartland."

Today, when people think of Lutherans, many think of Garrison Keillor's "Prairie Home Companion" and the bland residents of the fictional Lake Wobegon, "the little town that time forgot and the decades cannot improve ... where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average."  Like their Methodist and Presbyterian cousins, Lutherans are not likely to wear their religion on their sleeves and therefore lack the chutzpah of the megachurches and Pentecostals on their right or the United Church of Christ and Episcopalians on their left.  In other words, Lutherans are "nice" but not especially interesting - which has positioned them solidly in the middle ground of American religious life.

Perhaps because of their place in the middle, the Lutherans have done the best job of any Protestant denomination at working for Christian unity.  When efforts at creating a visibly united Protestant church in America fell through in the late twentieth century, the Lutherans forged ahead with talks aimed at "full communion" - a common confession of the Christian faith and mutual recognition of baptism, ministry, and sharing of the Lord's Supper.   Remarkably, the largest Lutheran church in the country with 4.7 million members, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), has reached full communion agreements with the following churches:
  • Three Reformed churches in 1997: the Presbyterian Church (USA), the United Church of Christ (formerly the Congregationalists or the "Puritans"), and the Reformed Church in America (Dutch Reformed roots)
  • The Episcopal Church and the Moravian Church (German Pietists) in 1999
  • The United Methodist Church in 2009

The Vanishing Middle?
Then, last August, the Lutherans (ELCA) shocked Christians around the world at their general assembly by voting to ordain openly gay people in "life-long, monogamous relationships."  What's more, this was not a frivolous, emotional decision - but a conclusion reached after eight years of study and deliberation over the theological issues surrounding human sexuality (a very "Lutheran" way to go about things).  Suddenly, the plain old "Lake Wobegon" Lutherans were receiving international attention as the largest church in the world to officially approve the ordination of homosexuals.

Richard Mouw, president of the evangelical Fuller Theological Seminary, noted that the ELCA's decision was especially "jarring and significant" because "it is viewed as one of the more Reformation-rooted, broadly orthodox denominations and takes its theology's a huge, huge departure for a church like that."  He went on to predict a "new ecumenical dialogue on the right" uniting conservatives opposed to homosexual ordination from across denominations.

Meanwhile, ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson issued a sincere Rowan Williams-esque plea for unity and conversation, stressing that conservative churches would not be compelled to hire gay clergy and imploring Lutherans not to "walk away" from one another.  But those who support the ELCA's decision like Barbara Wheeler, former president of Auburn Theological Seminary, were quick to point out that "if gays and lesbians could stick it out in mainline churches whose official teachings were dismissive of their faithfulness and even their personhood, so can disappointed of the mainline's strengths is to be a 'big tent.'"

It appears, however, that the tent may have stretched to the breaking point.  Only months after the ELCA's decision, conservative members announced a "reconfiguration of North American Lutheranism" and they were splitting to form their own new denomination - the North American Lutheran Church.  "We are not leaving the ELCA.  The ELCA has left us," said one member of the committee to form the new church.  Interestingly, the breakaway ELCA Lutherans decided not to merge with other conservative denominations like the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod or the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod because those churches do not ordain women. 

Now that two major "mainstream" Protestant churches have split, it seems clear that we are witnessing Christian unity in America being "reconfigured" between those who are in favor of ordination of homosexuals and those who are not.  The middle ground that the Lutherans and other mainline Protestants used to occupy in American religious life has vanished.  In a new and increasingly polarized Protestantism, what will Christian unity look like?

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