The church dilemma

Take an issue like gays in the church. Add the industry known as “talk radio.” Stir, and you probably know what usually comes out.

Fortunately, that wasn’t the case on MPR’s Midmorning on Tuesday during a program on the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s consideration of what to do about sexually active gay clergy.

It was an interesting hour about whether theology follows church change, or church change follows theology.

But it hit intellectual paydirt when Rev. Mariann Edgar Budde, a finalist for bishop of the diocese of the Episcopal Church in Minnesota, called in to challenge Kendall Harmon, a priest of the Episcopal Church USA and Canon Theologian of the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina.

Here’s the exchange:

Budde: Change rarely happens in any societal organization through intellectual argument. Change happens… kind of from the ground up, and it’s very rare that those who have an established world view based on argument, change their mind on intellect alone. It’s lived practice that changes hearts that ultimately lends itself to a new interpretation of what God is doing in the world.

It seems to me a very naive understanding of how change really does occur to say that we all need to get together in a room and argue this out because it’s by lived experience and seeing how people that we thought are very different from us just as the early Christians who were Jewish tried to grabbed reality that Gentiles were being accepted into the communion called the church. That didn’t happen because they thought it out; it happened because they saw lives transformed and people that they thought so different from them coming to know Christ in the same way that they did…

Harmon: Let me say this: First of all she’s very gutsy to call into the program given the position she occupies so good for her; I sense some courage there. I don’t disagree. I’m one of the so-called traditionalists who agrees that this is an important question that has to be wrestled with and I certainly agree that it’s a theological question that has to be wrestled through in people’s own lives and people’s own experiences.

But I don’t want the experience to drive the theology in such a way that the primary sources and their meaning is compromised.

Buddie: I’m not disagreeing with that, either, except that I think it is very dangerous to take our understanding of marriage and fidelity in relationships and try to imagine that even what Jesus was saying when he spoke the words that you quoted earlier because understandings of marriage in that time and that eras is very different from how people may experience marriage today. And to imagine that Jesus was speaking to the kind of realities that we are addressing now in same-gender, lifelong, committed relationships is just a huge distortion of the Palestinian world view that he was addressing.

He was addressing property issues. He was addressing men treating women like property and disposing of them at will and calling for a more egalitarian and respectful way that — and loving way — that men and women were to deal with one another. This is a time when women were treated like chattel and to have that idea of marriage held up to the standard that God calls us to now is, I think, is trying to take any view of order which was true in the Biblical era and make that standard for us now. It flies in the face of everything we know about now about how the Holy Spirit moves and works with us over time.

Harmon: This is exactly the kind of argument I think we need to have, by the way. The difficult here is the context that becomes the trump card, notice in her remarks, is the modern context. And so the Biblical context in the ancient world gets derated and we somehow suddenly know better how the Holy Spirit works in this modern era.

What’s so crucial to point out is there is such a thing as the history of the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit works through the church, especially the church globally and the church historically through time. And the church historically through time that has always understood that this kind of behavior is out of bounds and marriage is the context and what’s the height of the arrogance is that you impose this new understanding on the shoulders of the all the Christians we now understand, all the Christians around the world who haven’t been persuaded by these arguments.

Buddie: We don’t have to persuade every one… this is not an argument to have everyone see the world as we see it, or everyone to practice the faith as we practice it. To allow for a way of inclusion and a way for those people in our communities and in our churches who hunger for Christian community. Who hunger to live out their life-long vows to each other in the context of the church, and not prohibit them from doing that when they feel deep in their bones that this is who God has created them to be, and it just seems to me you can allow for that kind of generosity of spirit, which is exactly what the General Convention asks for — generosity of spirit, and to let the Holy Spirit sort this out. If it’s of God, it will thrive. If it’s not, it will die away, but to undercut that process and deny so many people to live as Christians, seems to me an unnecessarily restrictive and cruel thing to do.

Harmon: It’s amazing how the desires that people have seem to trump things. And the problem is Christianity is about taking desires — some of which are good but some of which are really out of whack because we’re created in God’s image, but we’re fallen — and channeling them in the right way. See, that’s the question: Is this the proper place for these desires to be channeled or not, and historically and globally the church has said “no” and the church in America unilaterally and the church in Canada to a lesser extent, is simply imposing the practice of this theology without making the case for it.

It was a short but riveting moment in a broader discussion that excellently captured the difficulty of agreement, and presented the obvious dilemma facing the church as a whole: There seems little chance of settling the question while keeping the church intact.

Perhaps that’s one reason why one attendee “tweeted” this on Tuesday:


“I can’t help but to think what the #CWA09 would be like if debate opened up about the wisdom of the Vikings signing Favre.”

  • Bonnie

    I heard the exchange this morning and thanks, it was definitely worth posting here. Miller unfortunately showed a most uncharacteristic lack of knowledge on the topic when she brought up so-called mega churches, but her guests set her straight pretty quickly. And it all comes down to beliefs about WWJD. What Buddie was really saying is “God is still speaking”. ( See United Church of Christ.)

  • Bob Collins

    I was on my way to see Rhoda Quick at the time of the exchange and, yeah, the megachurch thing was a bit of a cringing moment. Rock bands, light shows, big production numbers — maybe that screams something other than “conservative” where churches are concerned.

    I thought both of the speakers in the exchange made very, very lucid points and for those of us inclined to see the merits of both sides of an argument, it left us uncertain as to what we think, which I think always invites further introspection and thought.

    In that sense, I found it invigorating.

  • Joseph Garnier

    Is the church having a trivial debate on the merits of issues of temporal importance or rather on issues relating to theological truth which have eternal ramifications?

    I am inclined to believe that social experimentation should have no place in creating theological understanding. That is, to restate, that the church has received a preconceived doctrine from its inception. This doctrine is predicated on the Word of God throughout the Bible, rather then our attempts to formulate any new teaching based on humanistic understanding of morality.

  • Lily

    I think it is incredibly sad that so much time, money and energy is spent debating this! The City of Minneapolis is full of desperation, hunger, and poverty. How about a convention where people are served.

    I am a lifelong Lutheran, but have not been to the ELCA in a long while, partly because I am so tired of their study of “issues”. I live, work, and play with gays and lesbians. I don’t care what the sexuality of my pastor is. But, please, as a church let’s move on to our role as servants in the world.

  • Bob Collins

    I believe ELCA spent a lot of the Assembly today working on its anti-malaria campaign.

  • Jim!!!

    There’s a whole lot of dogmas that should die in hot cars. The so called “word of god” is a crock, medieval superstitions gone amok. Put on a pair of “no god” glasses an take a look around, I double dogma dare you.

  • Alison

    I was only able to listen to about half of the show, but the one thing missing during the parts I heard was the part the usually is in this debate – stories of actual good and holy gay people living out decent lives of Christian service. Most gay people are hardly the scandalous, immoral heathens unable to control their desires that the opponents would like to make them out to be. In a discussion with my Catholic priest about this, he said the Holy Spirit guides the church slowly, sometimes over centuies. Be patient. I reminded him that I will not be living on this earth for centuries and, as such, I would be going elsewhere.

  • Al

    People always make science out to be the thing that causes people to cease believing. For me it’s not science, but hipocrisy and history. Once I realized how much of what I learned at church is contradictory I started investigating. Once I began to notice the troubling origins and contradictions in many of the teachings, everything I learned was called into question. The problem with Christianity isn’t science, it’s history and hipocrisy

  • Bob Collins

    “History” is a word that I’ve always found interesting in discussion about church issues.

    Having grown up in a traditional church — Congregational and, later, Methodist — I’ve seen the same issues over and over again — usually involving why there are so few young people in the church etc., and why the spiffy new church is packing them in.

    “Because the new church doesn’t have a history,” I’d usually say.

    Not a theological history, but an actual history in which people remember things and hold grudges and choose sides — all of the things that the mainstream churches have.

  • Al

    But what I am talking about is common church history, a history which becomes yours even if you start a ‘new’ Christian church.

  • RollieB

    As long as any church continues to marginalize a group of people, any group, the church will not be practicing God’s grace and unconditional love; they will be acting against it. The anger of common folk toward the church is most always because of an inconsistency; the church talks about God’s unconditional love while incorporating conditions upon it constantly.

    However, there are churches that do practice God’s message of love. One has to do a lot of searching but they are available and open to everyone, unconditionally.

  • Bob Collins

    I’d love to see a follow-up show on prosperity theology.

  • Jim!!!

    Excellent point Al. For me science is the clincher. Early ideas about the origin of life and the universe did not have the benefit or tools of understanding that science has provided.

    If one accepts the “Word of God” as a moral guide, how do you decide that the idea of stoning adulterers, or that women should be treated as possessions, or etc, ad infinatum are no longer moral truths? Do you have some other guide? Joseph Garnier, do you support the stoning of adulterers or killing children that lie? Why not?

  • Mary

    I have nothing to add to this discussion other than my favorite comments:

    ////good and holy gay people

    (a new line for Robin-Boy Wonder- in Batman um are we up to number 4 or 5 now)?

    ////There’s a whole lot of dogmas that should die in hot cars.

    and

    ///I double dogma dare you

  • kennedy

    Why is it so easy to accept a church policy we don’t believe (apostolic succession) in order to share communion with another faith, and yet so hard to find a way to accept people who happen to be homosexual?