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Let’s Talk About . . . Love

More than ever last week I felt Garrison Keillor got it right: Lutherans just want to make nice. Sort of nice.

On Jan. 13, with justifiably little fanfare, the Task Force on Sexuality of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America released its recommendations about where it thinks the church should go with respect to blessing same-sex unions and ordaining gay and lesbian people who are in committed relationships.

This task-force study was expensive and exhaustive, and lasted for three years. The task force itself was made up of people from all over the country, straight and gay, clergy and layity, urban and rural. It involved immense amounts of research, generated two big study guides that were disseminated to congregations across the country. There were 28,000 responses.

The results are, as a friend of mine put it, “Minnesota nice.”

Meaning this: The task force recommends no change to the existing rules. That means no official recognition of any same-sex blessings a pastor might perform. That means no openly gay or lesbian person can be ordained a pastor in this church.

The big concession that these recommendations make is to suggest that maybe churches and pastors wouldn’t have to be “disciplined” (trust me, it’s not what it sounds like) if they did go ahead and bless a same-sex union or ordain an openly gay or lesbian pastor.

Well, nobody that I know of is happy with this. It didn’t appease the conservatives; they wanted a more entrenched stand. It has further alienated those who believe the current policy is exclusionary and loveless.

It’s all very dispiriting. And I recognize that I’m beyond a place where I can be patient with this kind of theological anemia. Besides which, on some bedrock level, I just don’t understand why a selected group of people’s personal sex lives are an issue.

The phrase “selected group” is key. Because underlying this entire study from soup to nuts is a double standard so unquestioned that I hesitate to bring it up:

The study is all about what single, homosexual people should do, shouldn’t do, can’t do and can do. And even those homosexual people who do not see themselves as “single” because they may have been in partnership for years and years are, as defined by the ELCA’s policies, always single. The only way to not be single is to be married, and that’s a civil right and sacred rite denied gays and lesbians in the Lutheran church.

So though the study purports to be about any sexual expression outside of marriage, the sole groups under consideration—and maybe I should be grateful?—are gay and lesbian people, not heterosexuals.

Why is that?

I think it’s because the participants and responders in this study are predominantly heterosexual and it is more convenient to turn a blind eye to what heterosexual people may do outside of marriage.

Does this suit me? Sure, I am a single, straight Lutheran pastor.

But is it just for there to be such a double standard? Of course not.

That’s not to say I think all people—straight or gay—who are or want to be pastors should be required to “embrace chastity” in some kind of verifiable way.

Because I can’t bring myself to believe that somehow God wants us to be lonely—or alone, if it’s not something we choose voluntarily. I can’t stop myself from believing that God must think it a good thing to have a private life. A private life.

So, while I am happy to have parishioners in my home, I not inclined to want anyone snooping around my bedroom whom I have not specifically invited to—and I’m speaking metaphorically, of course.

But you see, I get to say that because I’m straight. My habits are not really in question. Plus, I’ve got a range of options open to me. There is chastity, of course, which is what all single Lutheran pastors are supposed to embrace—though embracing chastity does strike me as oxymoronic. There is marriage. I can get married because I’m straight. I don’t need to bother wondering if my church will permit me the dignity of creating a union service; marriage is about as old as the hills. And though there is no statistical support for the notion that clergy marriages are more immune to divorce than other peoples’ (I myself am, to use that quaint parlance, a “double divorcee”), it remains the only way that clergy in most mainline Protestant denominations are supposed to be sexually active.

Of course, a person doesn’t go from being chaste to being married overnight. There is that delicious thing called courtship. And most clergy I know are not thinking about church policies when they are going incarnational. At least I hope they’re not.

But pretty much all of that doesn’t matter. Because single, heterosexual clergy are not on the hot seat. Gay ones are. Or gay people who want to become clergy in the Lutheran church. That’s the group the study addressed and that’s the group to whom the study’s recommendations deny full inclusion.

People I’ve talked to about this keep saying it’s a sign of the times. That the country has swung into line with our administration. That the recommendations are partly to mollify Midwesterners (something like 46 percent of the respondents were from the Midwest) or older people (80 percent of respondents were 45 and older).

That may well be. There’s no question that the responses to the questions raised were by and large to oppose same-sex blessings and the ordination of non-celibate gays and lesbians.

But in one way the study and the questions it tries to address sidestep a most central issue: Why is the church perpetuating a view that divorces love from sex—at least for a selected group of single people of faith—in a world that, it seems to me, can only made richer when genuine love can be fully expressed?

—Jo Page

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