On Friday 18th October 2019, the General Church Board (GCB) and the College of Bishops (CoB) met “to consider how together they can best lead the church in this contested time” of whether or not to ordain women in the LCANZ. The letter from Bishop Henderson is copied below and can be found here. It is not hopeful.
To recap, at the 2018 Convention of Synod, when the required 67% vote for women’s ordination was not achieved, there was public grief and despair. While some of those resisting women’s ordination publicly celebrated, most women and their supporters were devastated at how a minority on the Synod floor (40%) continue to dictate to the general Church by blocking called and qualified women from being ordained as pastors in the LCA. Synod Leadership at that time acknowledged the depth of pain in the division and promised a response in the new year. This has not been forthcoming until the meeting on the 18th Oct – let’s say around eight months late, if ‘the new year’ meant February. Now they promise to keep meeting on the matter in early 2020.
Last week’s meeting declared again that the Bishops and General Church Board have nothing to offer on this matter. Their do-nothing statement is not the response that was promised.
The only pastoral statement seems to be for those whom this is ‘not a particular issue’, with the statement, ‘Hang in there.’ There was no acknowledgement of the existing division, just a pretense of avoiding schism and nothing that acknowledged the despair of so many people. On the contrary, Bishop Henderson pleads for an understanding of the bishops’ dilemma in regards to the vows they have taken. While we do have an understanding of their dilemma, we also hoped that the bishops would acknowledge the existing division and offer leadership in this conflict, given that the LCA is caught in a constitutional quagmire due to what is now seen in hindsight as a destructive requirement to achieve a defensive two-thirds supermajority of a Convention of Synod vote on any issue that is deemed a major theological issue. (It is now apparent that, rather than preserving unity, such a supermajority is now the cause of division. Perhaps a revised supermajority of 55% might be considered for future major theological issues. God help us if we are to ever achieve equality of those members who have a gender identity other than binary heterosexuality.)
As a two-thirds majority probably will not be attained any time soon, the only hope for the Church after the last Synod was leadership from the bishops. However, given that bishops have now committed to a hands-off approach, they have condemned the Church to a degree of despair and chaos for the foreseeable future. Contributing to that despair is that they have not considered young generations who are hoping that their Church might demonstrate some relevance in our society.
The message of the bishops’ inability to act has been heard heard loud and clear, so now the only option is for Church membership to act, given that “in effect, it is the people in the pews, rather than church leaders, who determine the direction of our church” . Congregations historically have the authority to ordain, and given that various congregations have already indicated a new determination to step outside of normal due process on this matter, congregations will presumably forge the way ahead. It’s been under discussion for two decades or more but now ironically, inaction from leadership will probably bring it about.
Some of us had expected an olive branch from the bishops with small concessions, such as special ministries that allowed some female leadership. Presumably, these will be offered at some stage but anything less than full participation in the ministry of word and sacrament is sure to arouse deep suspicion.
25 October 2019
Dear members and pastors of the LCA,
Last week I wrote to you about a special joint meeting of the General Church Board (GCB) and the College of Bishops (CoB). Many responded to that message with offers of prayer, and some with advice – thank you. As I write this message after that meeting I know there will be some who will say that despite all that effort we have not made much progress. I guess if leading the LCA was a case of ‘winners’ and ‘losers’, that might be the case. But we are not to behave like that (see Matthew 20:26). God brings the LCANZ together as a community of faith. It is not a completed work. We still have much to learn about doing the Lord’s work and about how to love one another with the same unconditional love God shows to each of us. We are a living, dynamic, connected community. Our God-given accountability to one another is through the law of love (see Matthew 22:37, John 13:34-35, 1 John 4:19-21). Therefore, we step down from the constant conviction that only we are ‘right’ and have a true understanding, and therefore others are ‘wrong’ and must have a false understanding. Attentive listening and appreciative enquiry helps us understand so much more than we ever imagined we could. Faith in Christ gives us the confidence and ability to respond to each other with the grace and forgiveness we so desperately need for ourselves (see Matthew 7:1-5). Praise God for being so generous with us!
Your two key leadership groups met last week to consider how together they can best lead the church in this contested time. The church faces immense external pressures. We see the statistics, read the press, and are aware of a general tide turning against Christianity. We feel it in our local places, and with it reducing numbers and resources. Society is holding Churches accountable, and deservedly so. The new compliance regime places us under stress, but we know we need to do it. In the LCA we have the added pressure of what has become a deeply divisive theological and practical issue that seems to cut to the core of our identity as Lutheran Christians. And since the Lutheran church bases itself on its theology, and prides itself somewhat on that, this is deeply painful.
As I have written before, the LCA has not changed its public position or practice on male only clergy. Yet since we don’t have internal unanimity on the matter, it is a complex situation. During their meeting your elected leaders read and listened to a range of stories and viewpoints sent in by congregations and individuals. Correspondents expressed their intent to be God pleasing and Scriptural. We are unlikely, however, to be able to reconcile the different positions represented. The leadership believes the right response to this situation is a pastoral one, praying that God will grant us further grace and time to work things through. This does not mean we do nothing. The GCB and CoB will continue to listen and grapple with the best response, and we ask you to do the same, staying within the practice and teaching of the church as you do so. The GCB has the task of ensuring proper synodical processes, and the CoB has the task of spiritual leadership. Within their remits both are working on options and possibilities. We will do our best to communicate these over the coming months, for the wellbeing, peace and order of the church. Please honour your leaders as they undertake this difficult task for our Synod.
Leaders were also conscious of the many people for whom this is not a particular issue, and certainly not a divisive one. We thank you for your faithfulness, service and prayers. Hang in there!
Leaders reminded themselves of the Five Principles of Dialogue which supported our debates through 2015 and 2018:
- Communion: Because God has gathered us in communion with one another through his word and sacraments, we have freedom to dialogue with one another on contested matters. Strengthening this God-given communion is the goal of dialogue.
- Trust: Because God has made us brothers and sisters in Christ, we can trust God to use our communion to build us up in love and use our differences to grow us in holiness of life.
- Listening: Because God gives each of his children a unique perspective, we can listen to each other trusting God that as we listen we will grow in understanding of ourselves, of the other person, and of the communion that God creates.
- Speaking: Because God gives each of his children a unique perspective, we can speak to each other trusting God that as we speak we will grow in understanding of ourselves, of the other person, and of the communion that God creates.
- Patience: Because the communion God gives us in Christ is God’s doing and not ours, we can be patient in listening and speaking to each other, trusting that God will deepen the unity he has already given us.
We believe these principles remain useful and can continue to guide us as we seek the way forward*.
We have heard suggestions that the leadership might be trying to work around the decision of the Synod on the ordination of men only, or act unilaterally outside of Synod on this matter. In the installation rite at Convention, each Church Board member made these promises before the church:
- Before God and this assembly, I ask you: Do you promise, with the help of God, to carry out your duties faithfully, in accordance with God’s word as taught and confessed by the Lutheran church? Yes, we do.
- Do you promise to uphold the constitution of the Lutheran Church of Australia and carry out its decisions faithfully? Yes, we do.
- Do you promise to work together in promoting the wellbeing, peace, and order of the church? Yes, we do.
Additionally, at their installation, among other vows, the Bishops made the following promises:
- Before God and this assembly of the church I ask you: Do you promise, with the help of God, to carry out the duties of bishop of —– faithfully, in accordance with the holy Scriptures and the confessions of the Lutheran church? Yes, I do.
- Do you promise to exercise the spiritual oversight of the church/district in accordance with the constitution of the church? Yes, I do.
- Do you promise to uphold and promote the theology and practice of public worship of the Lutheran Church of Australia? Yes, I do.
- Do you promise to work together with your fellow leaders in promoting the wellbeing, peace, and order of the church? Yes, I do.
These vows contain essential elements – Scripture, Confession, Constitution, along with wellbeing, peace and order. Each Church Board member, and each Bishop, does everything in their power, under God, to remain faithful to these commitments. They work sacrificially, for long hours, doing the best they can for the people of God who have entrusted them with this responsibility. They do it all under the gospel, surrounded by prayer, in the public gaze, and as transparently as they can and with full accountability.
The General Church Board and the College of Bishops are committed to continue to listen and explore ways of engaging the church on our unity in Christ and our way forward together. They affirm the need for all members of the LCA to reflect God’s love and to respect each other as priceless and cherished children of God, brothers and sisters whom Christ gave his all to redeem.
The GCB and the CoB plan to meet together again in early 2020 to continue this task. In the meantime they will listen and pray, explore options, and engage in gentle, caring and bold leadership – this all takes time, and we thank you for your patience. While this may disappoint the hope some of us have for a decisive and speedy resolution, we knew that last week’s meeting could only be a step along the way. Like the people of Israel finding their way to the Promised Land, we confess we still have a way to go.
Yours in Christ,
Pastor John Henderson
Bishop, Lutheran Church of Australia
Adelaide, 25th October 2019
On behalf of the members of the LCA General Church Board and the College of Bishops.
* For further information you may also reference the LCA’s Standards of Ethical Behaviour