Is an LCA schism inevitable?

06 Oct

While Pastor Semmler (President of the LCA) insists that he has never made his views known on women’s ordination, he continues to impede its progress.  His reasons may be theological but, more likely, they may be a result of fear that women’s ordination will cause a schism in the LCA.  Ironically, while he impedes women’s ordination, he may be officiating over the split of the LCA as congregations lose hope in what is seen to be a facade of consensus-making.

Those who lobby the President have told him that women’s ordination will alienate clergy, laity and congregations around Australia. They have told him that women’s ordination will initiate the break-up of the LCA, and he has paid attention.  He has paid attention to their fear and now acts as if their conservative voices are the only ones in the LCA.

We can assume that Pastor Semmler was profoundly influenced by the difficult journey to union of the ELCA and UELCA.  Older members will remember the years of inter-Synod negotiations.  For some, this period was so difficult that they couldn’t consider going down that path again.  Perhaps this is the key reason for his lack of readiness to chair a Synod that is moving towards women’s ordination.  It is understandable if deep in his heart Pastor Semmler is concerned about women’s ordination.  Concerns are okay and he is allowed to express them.  As the Chair of General Synod, however, he has an obligation to judiciously listen to and represent all sides of the debate to ensure that the integrity of the democratic process and of the democratic institution itself is maintained.  Sadly, Pastor Semmler’s leadership has not reflected these values. .

Pastor Semmler has not paid attention to those who support women’s ordination. He has not paid attention to:

  • the Commission on Theology and Inter-Church Relationships (CTICR), which decided by a 2/3 majority, in 2000 and again in 2006, that there were no impediments to women’s ordination.
  • Synods in 2000 and 2006 where a simple majority of delegates voted in favour of women’s ordination.
  • Synod resolutions in 2006 and 2009, which directed General Church Council to establish a committee to work towards consensus.  If he had treated these motions seriously the committees would have been established promptly.  Currently it is more than two years since the 2009 Synod and his proposed committee of five young clergy has still not been appointed
  • those who have left the LCA
  • those women who experience the call to ordained ministry
  • those women who suffer daily marginalisation within the LCA
  • those women and men who long for female pastoral leadership in a patriarchal Church

Pastor Semmler has blocked due process in many ways, as evidenced by:

  • the lack of a genuine, prompt consensus process
  • the banning of letters to the editor of The Lutheran on women’s ordination after the 2000 Synod. ref
  • the appointment of a three man conservative committee (2011) to advise the President on what Lutheran consensus means with the report being distributed to most Synod delegates
  • the intention to appoint a committee of five young clergy to find consensus amongst themselves.  How will five young clergy achieve Church consensus?   What women or Church groups are represented?
  • a desire expressed by Pastor Semmler that the 2013 Gen Synod be held in Adelaide (S.A.) rather than Alice Springs (N.T.) possibly in order that Pastors’ Conference may import retired clergy from retirement homes for any vote on women’s ordination. His scare tactics of the 2009 Synod surely would not work again.
  • the creation of a hermeneutics conference (for Oct 2011) on women’s ordination when CTICR has twice found no problems with women’s ordination.
  • the disempowerment of the CTICR by removing women’s ordination from its brief

Is it a wonder that some congregations feel disempowered when vested interests are the main concerns rather than that of the LCA?  What options do supporters of women’s ordination have?  Should they continue to forego their beliefs for the sake of national Church unity or do they follow what they believe is God’s calling?  Eventually congregations will do what they deem necessary, just as ignored or marginalised people eventually take matters into their own hands. .

While this may sound like an argument for the inevitable schism in the LCA, this is not the case.  The road to LCA strength is one where energy is invested in embracing diversity and finding ways that we can live together, including a genuine process towards consensus, not unanimity.   While the LCA persists in upholding an artificial notion of unity in thought and practice, only then is schism inevitable.

Reading on Consensus Building
A Short Guide to Consensus Building – and explains why Robert’s Rules are no longer appropriate
Process Guide: Building Consensus – a very brief summary of the process


Posted by on October 6, 2011 in theology


Tags: , , , , , , ,

7 responses to “Is an LCA schism inevitable?

  1. Geoff Burger

    October 16, 2011 at 11:13 pm

    Katie and Martin
    I came across your Blog by accident and thought I would join in – I am a retired Pastor and WA president in the LCA after 40+ years. I share your interpretation of the LCA history -The 120 years of separation and division deeply traumatised the Lutheran church in Australia and this has had a distorting effect on the way we are church together.
    President Mike is a Barossa Lutheran who grew up with this.There is still a huge fear in leadership circles that some dispute will split us apart again We fear differences in spiritual and theological understanding.
    There is an underlying pessimism and fear . Separation is understood as the norm for human beings in a church – unity is fragile and fleeting
    So we have a sort of church paralysis on the issue serious discussion on issues like gender free ordination and Genesis.

    Recently the President asked three people to research what it means to Walk in Consensus – the Lutheran way –

    I put together a response – if you are interested to read on this is it.

    All the best


    The group has diligently followed the terms of reference to describe what a consensus is in the Lutheran church with a few no gos A great deal more needs to be done. Here are some personal responses. Of course I may be wrong
    Fundamentally we believe the Holy Spirit works through study and searching of the Word. However in the church this happens in a very human context – it is “in, with and under” human personalities and psychologies, social and cultural movements and changes, traditions and politics.
    I believe the report would have been more valuable if the terms had be widened a little to explore the way in which an old consensus disintegrates and a new one develops in a church and the factors involved in recognising and affirming this new consensus. We can get insights on the process and factors involved from many fields of study.
    Sometimes resistance to change can cause great suffering. The change in consensus on how to fight a modern war only came after unimaginable suffering on the front lines in WW1. Political resistance to a new consensus can lead to violent revolution – the Arab spring. Or opposition to a new consensus in a social group or church can lead to withdrawal and resignations and the formation of a rival group – sectarianism.
    There is an insight from the way political change is recognized peacefully in our society through an election. A party gains a consensus and when it loses it through the defection of swinging voters another party forms government. The new consensus is accepted even though it cannot be unanimously agreed to because there are still maybe 49% of the population apposed to the new government.
    The new political consensus is accepted because there is a deeper consensus behind it – a commitment to the Westminster adversarial system and a common commitment to the nation.

    There is not a theological consensus in the church at the moment on many issues one of them being gender based or gender free ordination. The accepted status quo position from past tradition and Biblical understanding is that gender is critical. However this is not a unanimous position. It is possible that if the issue came to a vote a numerical majority of pastors, people and congregations would favour a gender free position.
    So a consensus position by the church on an issue does not mean a unanimously held position. There is something deeper involved.
    The deeper consensus which preserves unity is a common commitment to the LCA , its wider theology, heritage, traditions and personal relationships and friendships within the church. This is what will hold us together when other consensi are changing.

    The church has always had to struggle with the lack of unanimous consensi on all sorts of issues. This is the challenge for God’s people to remain one as Jesus prayed. Oneness based on total agreement on everything is simple, a fairly easy human achievement that doesn’t need any intervention by the Holy Spirit. This can be forced or on the basis of compromises. At times we define ourselves against others and the conflict of us against them creates unity.

    Our calling is to be bigger than this . To remain one and become an ever larger one even with a lack of all sorts of consensi on all sorts of things – gender issues being just one of them. We survived lack of consensus on attitudes to various wars and invasions. Statistics indicate that 50% of Christians accept euthanasia, 50% don’t. Similarly with environmental issues, climate change, boat people. And of course Biblical literalism and evolution, etc.
    Our deepest calling as church is to do more than social clubs do – remain one at times in spite of a lack of unanimity or a consensus on issues. This is where we need all the resources the Spirit can shower us with.
    In the church as in music difference is an essential characteristic of harmony. This is an implication of Paul’s reflection on the church as the body of Christ in Romans 12. People with strength of character, Spirit given faith and confidence harmonise with others but may not necessarily agree with them. The opposite of harmony is not chaos but uniformity and homogeneity. In human life as in agriculture a monoculture based on uncritical agreement is inherently unstable and unhealthy.
    Consensus in the church is always a harmony which enables and embraces difference.
    It may be helpful as well as realistic to see the glass as 95% full rather than 5% empty. On the really big denominational issues – justification and salvation, Jesus and the Trinity , ministry and mission, justice and welfare there is an undeniable consensus. Gender and sexuality is interesting but not that big a thing in the total scheme of things

    I vaguely remember as a child in the late ‘40s in Geelong that women wore hats in church to cover their hair, sat separately from men and Lutherans communed as a gender group not in families.
    And over the past 40 or so years we have recognised a different consensus on the role of gender in the LCA developing.
    I was ordained in 1968 and was part of a succession of LCA church conventions where gender roles in the church were debated and bit by bit the gender consensus changed. Women were allowed to vote in congregations, then synods, then do Bible readings in worship, then hold office, then lead committees, then be “pastoral carers”, then lay readers. Each step of the process involved a discussion and steadily narrowing interpretation of the same Biblical passages – mainly Paul.
    There were some verbal gymnastics to make accepting the new consensus easier for some – the right of males to make an issue a male vote if they wished (!!!!), not using the term “elder” to describe female pastoral carers and so on.
    Obviously many factors were involved in this acceptance of a different consensus on church gender attitudes among Lutherans. It wasn’t just theology. As they became less rurally isolated Lutherans became more and more Australian and were affected by all the factors creating a changing society – war time mobilization of women into the paid work force, movement from farms to the cities, prosperous baby boom children, more women and men undertaking secondary and tertiary studies, European migrant Lutherans, overseas travel, TV and Internet etc.
    There are significant personality differences leading some people to welcome change more than others – some people live for stability and safety and are threatened by change – anchor people. Others need challenges and stimulation to energise them – sail people.
    Both groups can exist side by side in the church – actually the church needs both to balance each other. A static unchanging church can only exist in isolation and gradually becomes more and more exclusive and irrelevant. A constantly changing church has no foundation or stability and ends up being indistinguishable from everything else
    One problem is that it seems easier for sails to accept anchors than for anchors to accept sails.
    The group mentioned the 25 year movement towards union of the two synods culminating in the formation of the LCA in 1966. It would be worth doing a careful analysis of the factors involved. Sure there was lots of theological discussions but what lay behind these?
    Personalities were obviously important along with their histories and experiences. There was the bitterness of 100 years of suspicion and family squabbles in some places; personal animosities of some pastors; the Concordia-Immanuel rivalry – at one football match there were reports of students spitting at the opposing team.
    On the other hand there was a very positive commitment of church leaders on both sides, the growing trust and friendship between pastors on the union committee. Gradually more and more pastors and leaders form both synods got to overcome stereotypes and historical animosities.
    Hugely important at the end seems to have been the collegiality, respect and friendship between members of the two seminary faculties.
    In the end it seems to have been the total commitment of church leaders to the new consensus which over came the fears and hesitancy of other clergy. Laity recognized this and were able to give solid support to what most had long thought had to happen eventually.
    In summary , the critical human factor is a united leadership of academic theologians and church leaders (bishops) who are as passionately and uncompromisingly committed to a similar basic consensus as our Canberra politicians – win or lose we are committed to something greater than our selves. We will not separate from each other whatever happens because we recognize the body of Christ.
    This happened over time as an ever growing group of leaders and theologians kept meeting and sharing fellowship before union – eventually they began to pray with each other to open the meeting. Finally they shared a common consensus – there needs to be one LCA.
    In the context of this fundamental consensus the smaller consensi gradually took place or were allowed to remain as a movement towards consensus – eg relations with LWF.

    Dr Sasse seems to have been a very important personality respected by both sides, a sort of baggage free catalyst from the outside. He seems to have helped to move the church leadership to accept a new consensus.
    It is really vital to recognize the unique importance of some individuals. Some people by force of personality, charisma and sometimes uncompromising (or blinkered?) conviction are more influential than others –gifted speakers and communicators, able to convey passion and win support. They punch well above their weight.
    On a spiritual level being given unrestricted authority to do this is not respectful of the body of Christ and its unity. Nor on the human level is it democratic. It is fairly easy to identify LCA individuals who have used these gifts either to maintain the old consensus against any changes or to support the new consensus. New consensi can be created by or blocked by fanatical spiritual populism – the histories of personality based sects in the church give evidence of this.
    The challenge for church leaders especially is to discern real wisdom, theological and spiritual insight and to strongly affirm this. The really hard and vital thing in deciding whether to hold onto an old consensus or affirm a new one is to sense the timing and know whose views should be supported and whose views should be restrained.

    Critical in any discussion on consensus is to take seriously the church as the body of Christ. So an olde consensus is preserved and a new one recognized by the community of God’s people in a Christ relationship with each other.
    In my limited experience as an observer the CTICR is a very pleasant activity for those attending. There is camaraderie, vigourous discussion and at times dissent, and at the same time there is respect for one another and appreciation for differences in theology and application. I cannot imagine any of the participants leaving the group or church because they did not get their theological point of view accepted. There is a consensus that the LCA must remain united
    This process needs to be made the basic principle as it was a number of years ago when there were free discussions around the church in all congregations on the issue. Unfortunately the process was allowed to lapse without a formal resolution – maybe this can be seen as a failure in leadership
    Could the CTICR be widened to be open to all pastors who want to be involved and all leaders especially all those who punch above their weight?
    Whatever happens it will need to be personal-social-relational-theological allowing group dynamics to be given equal weighting with theological position papers and disputation. It will be important for everyone to be given an equal hearing.
    Probably this will mean more Australia wide pastors’ and lay leaders’ retreats so that relationships can be developed and a strong consensus of commitment to the body of Christ will strengthen and allow possible recognition of a new consensus on gender free ordination

    Geoff Burger
    August 2011

    • Katie and Martin

      October 21, 2011 at 10:28 pm

      Thanks Geoff for your considered, gentle input. We appreciate your thinking on the dissolving of the previous consensus and the evolution of another consensus.

      We considered your input valuable and have copied it to a full post. It’s important that the Church understands just how large the support for women’s ordination is. The consequences of ignoring this new consensus may be huge.

  2. woordelijk

    November 9, 2011 at 8:45 pm

    Dear Katie and Martin,
    Pastor Semmler as President of the LCA does not make his personal views known in public, and I do not expect him to do so, as National President he reflects the current teaching of the LCA. In my conversations with him he remained steadfast in saying what he thought was LCA teaching, this does not necessarily mean that Pastor Semmler and I agree or dis-agree on certain points, what I am saying here is that he as our National President represents the teaching of the LCA (rightly or wrongly). It is you and I who can use the Berean [Acts 17:11] principle and compare the words spoken against the Holy Scriptures, i.e. the written Word of God.
    As it appears at the moment there is a significant vocal element in the LCA that wants to change our doctrine, unfortunately for them there is a clause in our Constitution (Article II) that clearly sets down on what our doctrine and teaching is to be based. So let us not pussyfoot around and bite the bullet; either; (i) Fully support the Confessions and the teachings of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (see the Book of Concord, and our constitution) or (ii) join a denomination that agrees with your interpretation of the doctrines of the Lutheran Church. There is really no other way, remain LUTHERAN with all that entails or confess an other christian belief system where you have peace with their teachings.

    May our Lord’s peace be plentiful to you.


    Ubi Verbum Christi, ibi Veritas
    Where the Word of Christ is, there is Truth.

  3. Katie and Martin

    November 10, 2011 at 9:42 am

    Pastor Semmler has made his views known on women’s ordination by his action since he took office. He has discouraged conversation. He banned letters to the editor of The Lutheran on the matter for a while. He has spoken at length to Synod delegates, heavily counselling them at length in more than one forum, to vote against women’s ordination if they were at all unsure, threatening that it was going to divide the Church. He has shown poor faith to General Synod in his tardiness of appointing a consensus committee (which he has decided should be 5 clergy), which has not been appointed after more than two years. He initiated the Hermeneutics Symposium but that brings us no closer to consensus. Pastor Semmler has stonewalled the process since he took office and makes his personal views painfully obvious.

    Barney, the CTICR twice decided that there are no impediments to women’s ordination. It is our highest theological body. The theological debate has been decided. Pastor Semmler is engaging in historical revisionism by ignoring CTICR, and members of that Committee are dismayed that CTICR has been sidelined. Most Lutheran churches around the world already ordain women. The Symposium clearly demonstrated that many serious Lutheran scholars (including a scholar in the Confessions) who revere the Confessions and Lutheranism, see no problem with ordained women in the Lutheran tradition. It is agreed that those aligned with Missouri Synod have their issues.

    Under such circumstances, it is interesting that you suggest it is us who might consider joining another denomination. But seriously Barney, are you suggesting that people should swap churches every time there’s a theological tension? I don’t believe you are. Denominations evolve. Women already have enormous participation in congregational life that they didn’t have sundry decades ago.

    Barney, here’s the rub: we can’t agree on the matter just yet, so our challenge is to work out how we can live together in the LCA. Can you agree with that?

  4. Barney & Co

    November 11, 2011 at 12:17 am

    Katie and Martin,
    I will not further discuss the merits of our National President [one way or the other], enough has been said about him already, I am glad that I do not stand in his shoes.
    In the world, especially for those who are of the world, voting is a common method of achieving the will of a majority of the voters. However, in the Christian community – those who are in the world but not of the world, and believe in Christ Jesus – voting is used as a method to get certain theories passed as rules of men [inclusive] . Doctrinal controversities should NOT be voted on, but searched and re-searched, and then solved based on Scripture and on accepted doctrine. A vote of God’s word is valueless, I may suggest here that you read the example where the words of 400 prophets were against the word of God and the word of God through the Prophet prevailed. Even a 400 to 1 vote cannot and does not change the will and the Word of God, (1 Kings 22:6-28). Furthermore, since Scripture cannot be broken by voting we cannot do so either. Hermann Sasse in his “This is my body” [Openbook Publishers, ISBN 0 85910 034 0] also briefly addresses the voting on God’s Word.

    On Consensus. I find it extremely difficult to come to a consensus with theories that contradict Holy Scriptures. I do not overlook that my hermeneutics may not have the same results as those with a different training and study profile, but my hermeneutics exclude eisegessis [reading into the source what is not there].

    On the CTICR. The CTICR decisions were NOT anonymous, they were on the “balance of probabilities”. One side may have been in the majority, but majority does not make ‘right’, the strict adherence to God’s Word only makes it right.

    On “those aligned with Missouri Synod have their issues”. Yes, you may be right there, I do not belong to LC-MS nor to the ELCA; the latter had so many more problems than the former as a result of the people made rules after ordaining women that they even allowed the ordination of practicing LGBTs. (1 Corinthians 5).

    I agree with you that we cannot agree, which is sad. Our requirement is still to love one another as our Lord has loved all of us, including those in 1 Cor. 5 difficult as that may be.

    I wrote in an other blog that it is not good to go ad hominem in a blog, I never heard again from the correspondents again. Hence, I will avoid to go ad hominem in this blog also, out of courtesy for my fellow correspondents.


    Ubi Verbum Christi, ibi Veritas

    Alternate blog site


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