Tuesday, February 23, 2010

A delegate's reflection on the ELCIC Convention 2009.....

By Pastor Paul Hartig

In which Those with the Power of Speech are Struck Mute

July 04, 2009

By Pastor Paul Hartig - St. John's Lutheran, Waterloo

At the end of the seventh chapter of the gospel according to

St. Mark (verses 32 to 37), we read

They brought to Jesus a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, ‘Ephphatha’, that is, ‘Be opened.’ And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. Then Jesus* ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, ‘He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.’

One of the signs of the presence of the Messiah is that the mute are made to speak. By applying the principle of reverse understanding to this, we could legitimately conclude that when those who have the power of speech are struck mute, an unclean spirit is at work. One hesitates to go to this length when it comes to the just-completed National Convention of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC), it seems painfully obvious that there was a spirit of some sort at work, as those who arrived with the belief that they had a voice were shown clearly that they did not.

Numerous petitions were crafted and sponsored by congregations and individuals across the ELCIC, and duly submitted in time to be included in the bulletin of reports. Upon receiving these petitions, ELCIC national bishop Susan Johnson ruled that, for the first time in the history of this church, congregational petitions would not be printed in the bulletin of reports. No rationale was given to justify this ruling; it was merely presented to us as fait accomplis. These motions were hardly frivolous: they dealt with such important issues as conflict of interest between those in positions of authority and decisions in which they had a direct interest, transparency in dealing with the ELCIC’s pension and benefit plan, adherence to the direction of previous conventions that the issue of same-sex blessings and ordinations is decided and no further funding should be assigned to it; the guaranteed retention of the assets of congregations which choose to leave the ELCIC, and more.

In the case of each and every petition, the committee for Reference and Counsel – a committee 8 persons hand-picked by the NCC – recommended that the petition not be allowed to be debated on the floor of convention. A strange procedural matter then followed. It is well-known, and was unfailingly imposed on the floor, that discussion could only be held on the question before the house. No debate or discussion on anything else was permitted, and delegates were routinely told to stop talking and sit down if they were ruled by Johnson as being in violation of this policy. However, when it came to R&C recommendations, rather than stick to the recommendation at hand, the chair of R&C was permitted to stand at the podium on stage and outline R&C’s objections to each motion in minute detail. No other delegate was permitted to challenge R&C’s comments, as the motion was not on the floor for debate, but R&C was permitted to speak to them at length, and in highly-charged rhetoric. As a result, each recommendation to take no action was upheld by a roughly 2/3 majority vote. In fact, after the first three or four motions to take no action were debated, a motion was introduced that no discussion be permitted when R&C made a recommendation to take no action. In effect, an R&C recommendation to keep an item off the floor became non-debatable altogether, and those congregations which submitted motions in good faith were told that their voice was not welcome, and they would not even be given an opportunity to appeal that ruling.

I compare that action with what we read in Mark’s gospel: They were astounded beyond measure, saying, ‘He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and themute to speak.’ How ironic, how sad, and how unChrist-like, that the ELCIC, in the name of expediency, has chosen to silence those who seek to make it a better church, or to raise legitimate concerns about the future direction in which it is being led by its hierarchy.

As a result of these rulings, and these votes, and the atmosphere bordering on contempt felt by many of these congregations’ delegates, many leaving convention were heard to say that they would be returning home to recommend that their congregations leave the ELCIC, because their voices were not welcome, their ideas ignored, and their concerns belittled.

Throughout the convention we were told that signs of hope everywhere abounded. As a parish pastor, if I were to come to the end of a congregational meeting with fully 1/3 of those in attendance feeling unheard, ignored and belittled, and questioning whether they should simply leave the congregation and go somewhere where they would find the respect which ought to be due fellow members of the body of Christ, I would hardly end the meeting declaring what a wonderful time it was, and how many signs of hope were in evidence. Rather, I would be compiling a list of persons who needed immediate visits and assurance that they mattered, their congregations mattered, their concerns mattered, and they were cherished members of the body of Christ.

That will not happen with the ELCIC, for these delegates, in fact, read the situation correctly. They really aren’t important to the whole. They are merely annoying voices threatening the appearance of unity which was so carefully massaged.

Given all of this, it is easy to understand why there is a severe shortage of funding for the ELCIC and its work. When voices have been stilled, and persons have been told they don’t matter, it should surprise nobody that donations are directed to other places where donors feel that they can make a difference.

Far from seeing signs of hope for the ELCIC, I personally saw signs of desperation and heard voices breaking with barely-restrained tears, as they bid farewell to their church.