Thursday, July 12, 2007

Church Blessing and Control

I've had to ask myself, what is ordination for ministry? Since I myself am pursuing ordination, I've had to think deeply why it matters to me. After all, as a baptized believer, I am already called and empowered to share the gospel in how I live and what I say. In this country, I could even start my own independent, non-denominational church if I wanted to! So why seek ordination within any denomination?

For me the answer comes down to accountability and blessing. Clearly, accountability is important for the benefit and protection of those with whom I serve—even my family and myself. I know enough of my own sinfulness to know that I need this. But lately I been coming to a deeper appreciation of why blessing matters in ministry and how painful it is to have that blessing withheld.

Last week my pastor, Bradley Schmeling, was removed from the roster of ordained ministers of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA). He was removed for violating a church policy barring gay ministers in the ELCA from being in committed relationships with someone of the same sex. The members of St. John's Lutheran Church in Atlanta, Georgia, unanimously support and value our pastor. Personally, he is one of the finest ministers I have had the privilege of knowing.

The denominational rejection of our pastor was definitely not for the sake of protecting our congregation from a bad minister. I believe strongly that denominational discipline of minister must be applied to protect congregations and congregants, say, in the case of embezzlement, sexual harassment, and any number of other situations of making improper use of ministerial office. But this is not the case at St. John's. The Disciplinary Hearing Committee found no lack in his ministry or any way that his gay or partnered status had somehow impaired his ministry among us. The DHC also determined that the specific policies baring “practicing” homosexuals from ministry were "bad policy," but they did not go so far as to disregard the explicit policy.

So if not for the wellbeing of the congregation, why did the Committee on Appeals overturn the decision of the disciplinary committee so to remove Pastor without delay? I must admit that I do not understand why that the CoA took so lightly the concern of the DHC that the specific policies are "at least bad policy, if not unconstitutional" regarding ELCA constitutional standards? But whatever their motivation their decision stands as a painful intrusion into the life of our congregation.

I had not anticipated what such a removal could mean to a congregation such as ours. Usually, we think about what removal of ordination means to the clergy member so disciplined, but not to the congregations that have called such a pastor to ministry.

The members of St. John's were informed two days before the decision became public knowledge. We were all shocked and upset. We have loved and have been loved by Pastor Bradley for seven years. Such is a sacred bond between a pastor and congregation. But this bond was disregarded by a church body that would not even meet with us. Many of us were angry at the decision. We had struggled so long to hold our head up, but now that rejection that was aimed at our pastor was our portion as well.

When I heard the news I was unusually calm and hopeful. I thought this was just a momentary set back that would only serve to charge the Churchwide Assembly in August to remove this bad policy once and for all--and I remain hopeful at this prospect. But a few days later it sunk in just how sad it made me. While others had responded with anger and hurt feelings, I guess I was more in the denial camp. Grief was our reality in either case.

How can so many in the denomination who know nothing of our congregational life feel that they can judge us and our pastor whom we have called and wish to retain? How can they reduce what's best for our congregational life to a quibble about church policy and biblical interpretation? Do we even matter? Or is this just an opportunity for the conservative wing of the church to score a few points for their "biblical worldview"?

It shouldn't matter much. Our pastor will continue to serve as our pastor with or without the blessing of the ELCA. If our detractors wish us out of the denomination, they'll have to push a lot harder; we're not moving. Last Sunday we had worship just the same as any Sunday. Our pastor presided over the Lord's Table and we partook in this sacrament.

This brings me back to my basic question. Why does ordination matter? The most guarded privilege of ordained ministry in the ELCA is the ministry of sacrament. In principle, layperson Bradley should not preside over communion or baptisms at St. John's, and the congregation should not accept invalid administration of the sacraments.

Consequently, the disciplinary action against Pastor Schmeling deprives our congregation of either our pastor or the sacraments. This is what happens when the blessing of ordination is withdrawn. The blessing of the ELCA is no longer with us.

What should we do? Perhaps we should abstain from the Eucharist. We could lift up an empty cup and a plate with no bread. We could confess the hidden bread of doing God's will and the wine of fellowship in the Holy Spirit. I am sure that God and the grace of God can meet us even as we lift our own hearts as empty vessels. We can hunger and thirst after righteousness. We can stand with all who have been pushed away from the table. We can still stand around the altar and pray for one another. We can still anoint each other with oil and drive away sickness.

I wonder how Luther and his congregation felt about worship when Luther was excommunicated from the church. He never chose to leave; he was kicked out. Despite his own anxieties, Luther must have held the conviction that the gifts of God are for the people of God with or without the blessing of Rome? And lest we forget, Pope Benedict XVI felt a need to remind us all that the Protestant churches are not churches and lack the real means of grace.

What does it mean when the church withholds blessing from sincere ministry? I suspect what is really going on is that leaders misconstrue authority with control. Luther was excommunicated because those in power could not control him. And to this day the Vatican withholds the blessing of Apostolic Succession from the Protestant churches. A wave of the Pope's hand with prayer and a bit of oil could solve this whole problem once and for all if not for the strings of control. But closer to home, there are elements within the ELCA who want to control congregations like St. John's and pastors like Bradley Schmeling by withholding the blessing of ordination.

When will we learn that authority is not about control? It is about blessing. Jesus commands his disciples to love one another. This command is not about control. Control never brings about love. But Jesus has the authority to command love because he blesses his disciples and gives them the Holy Spirit to accomplish whatever love demands. Jesus has this authority because he lived and suffered what love required. While Pontius Pilate bartered for power and control, Jesus released his control into the hands of those who crucified him. This is the authority I long to see, and this is the blessing.

Come Melchizedek, bring your wine and bread,
Restore our fellowship and make us whole.
Prince of Salem, Priest of God Most High,
We are called to be a people like you.