Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

Journalists may want to ask: When will United Methodist left decide that enough is enough?

Journalists may want to ask: When will United Methodist left decide that enough is enough?

Way back in the 1980s, as the sex wars in the Episcopal Church really began to heat up, I heard a conservative priest tell a joke that gently mocked many of his Anglo-Catholic colleagues on the doctrinal right.

The whole point of the joke is that it is really hard to cut the ties that bind, when people have invested decades of their lives in religious institutions and traditions. And then there are the all-too human, practical details that come into play. In the end, it may be easier to edit the Apostles Creed and modernize the prayer book than it is to split the clergy pension play or divide a denomination’s trust funds.

Which brings us back to that joke that I have shared once or twice in the past. I have left the time-element in the first line intact. Like I said, it’s an old joke.

The year is 2012 … and two Anglo-Catholic priests in the back of National Cathedral are watching the Episcopal presiding bishop and her incense-bearing lover process down the aisle behind a statue of the Buddha, while the faithful sing a hymn to Mother Earth.

"You know," one traditionalist whispers, "ONE more thing and I'm out the door."

Right now, in the multi-decade United Methodist Church civil war, things may be close to reaching that point for LGBTQ clergy and their supporters on the denomination’s doctrinal left. What will it take for these believers — who are sincerely convinced that 2,000 years of Christian doctrines on marriage and sex should be changed — to decide that enough is enough?

That’s the key question that I asked during this week’s “Crossroads” podcast. (Click here to tune that in, or head over the iTunes.) What would this old “ONE more thing” joke look like today, if you turned it around — doctrinally speaking — and looked at it from the point of view of United Methodists on the left?

Maybe you would have two United Methodist pastors from the Iliff School of Theology in Denver — long a safe haven for the left — standing at the back of a global General Conference that is being held in a United Methodist stronghold in Africa. They are watching an African bishop walk down the aisle with his wife with his hands in the air singing an evangelical praise song. The service ends with the Rev. Franklin Graham giving an altar call.

One more thing and I’m out the door?

Then what? That was the other half of the equation in this podcast. Follow me through a few “ifs” here.

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Will diverse membership save Maryland's Lutherans? Baltimore Sun thinks so, with little backup

Will diverse membership save Maryland's Lutherans? Baltimore Sun thinks so, with little backup

It's one of those old truisms that apparently remains true, a declaration by the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:  “We must face the sad fact that at the 11 o’ clock hour on Sunday morning when we stand to sing, we stand in the most segregated hour in America.”

Although many congregations retain a majority from one ethnic group or another, there have been plenty of movements to bridge the gap over the past 50 years or so. And while much, if not most, of the "mainline" Protestant denominations remain dominated by what one wag called "persons of pallor," The Baltimore Sun informs us that local congregations in two branches of American Lutheranism have been revitalized by the influx of non-white members.

Of course, the Sun was not content to position this as just a church news story -- it had to be tied into the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, triggered by one Martin Luther, after whom King was named.

Creating this tenuous link, of which more in a moment, is but one of the journalism problems afoot here. But start with the headline, "500 years after Luther, Lutherans embrace growing diversity" and this lead-in to the story:

When the Rev. Martin Schultheis gazed out over the pews at Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Catonsville on a Sunday 10 years ago, he saw about 200 faces. More than 95 percent, he estimates, were white.
Attendance has dropped since then -- these days, about 150 people attend Sunday services. But those who do go have a different look.
About one-fourth of the worshippers in the congregation are people of color -- a development that stands out in a branch of Christianity that has historically been slow to change.

We then are asked to see this as linked to five centuries of Lutheranism:

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Cutting shrinking pies: The Baltimore Sun bravely looks into liberal pews seeking signs of life

Cutting shrinking pies: The Baltimore Sun bravely looks into liberal pews seeking signs of life

How long have journalists been writing stories about the decline of America's liberal mainline churches, both in terms of people in the pews and cultural clout?

I've been studying religion-news coverage since the late 1970s and I cannot remember a time when this was not "a story." For many experts, the key moment was the 1972 release of the book "Why Conservative Churches Are Growing" by Dean M. Kelley of the National Council of Churches.

You could argue, as I have many times on this blog, that the decline of the oldline left is a story that deserved even more press coverage than it has received. Why? Because the decline of the old mainline world helped create a hole in American public life that made room for the rise of the Religious Right.

Now we have reached the point, as "Crossroads" host Todd Wilken and I discussed in last week's podcast, where the story has become much more complex. While the demographic death dive has continued for liberal religious institutions (as opposed to spiritual-but-not-religious life online and elsewhere), we are now seeking slow decline in parts of conservative religious groups, as well.

What's going on? To be blunt, religious groups are growing or holding their own when they inspire believers to (a) have multiple children, (b) make converts and (c) live out demanding forms of faith that last into future generations. Yes, doctrine matters. So does basic math.

With this in mind, consider the brave attempt that The Baltimore Sun made the other day to describe what is happening in churches in that true-blue progressive city. Here is the overture and, as you read it, get ready for an interesting and, apparently, unintentional twist in the plot:

For a decade and more, Govans Presbyterian Church and Brown Memorial Woodbrook Presbyterian Church have labored in the manner of many mainline Protestant congregations: Working ever harder to provide spiritual resources for dwindling number of congregants.

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Is it big news when liberal Lutherans say the early church was wrong on sex? Why not?

Is it big news when liberal Lutherans say the early church was wrong on sex? Why not?

When it comes to lesbians and gays in the ministry, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America speaks with a clear voice. So that doctrinal stance really isn't news anymore.

When it comes to ecclesiastical approval for same-sex marriage liturgies, the ELCA -- at this point -- leaves that decision up to local leaders. So it really isn't news when an ELCA congregation backs same-sex marriage.

When it comes to ordaining a trans candidate for the ministry, some folks in the ELCA have crossed that bridge, as well. So an ELCA church embracing trans rights isn't really news.

So what would members of this liberal mainline denomination need to do to make news, when releasing a manifesto on issues of sex, gender and marriage? That was the question raised by the recent "Denver Statement" that was released by (and I quote the document):

... some of the queer, trans, gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, gender-queer, asexual, straight, single, married image-bearering Christians at House for All Sinners & Saints (Denver, Co).

That was also the question that "Crossroads" host Todd Wilken and I addressed in this week's podcast. So click here to tune that in.

Now, in terms of news appeal, it helps to know that this relatively small, but media-friendly, Denver congregation was founded by the Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber, a 6-foot-1, tattooed, witty, weight-lifting, frequently profane ELCA pastor who has graced the bestseller lists at The New York Times. She's like a superhero who walked out of liberal Christian graphic novel.

So the Denver Statement made some news because it was released -- at Bolz-Weber's "Sarcastic Lutheran" blog -- in reaction to the Nashville Statement that created a mini-media storm with its rather ordinary restatement of some ancient Christian doctrines on sexuality.

So if the Nashville Statement was news, then it made sense that -- for a few reporters and columnists (including me) -- that the Denver Statement was also news. (Oddly enough, a previous statement on sexuality by the Orthodox Church in America -- strikingly similar to the Nashville Statement -- made zero news.)

But here's another journalism issue: Was the Denver document news merely because it openly rejected what the Nashville Statement had to say?

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Wait just a minute: Fading Lutherans (ELCA) in Waco sold their lovely building to Anglicans?

Wait just a minute: Fading Lutherans (ELCA) in Waco sold their lovely building to Anglicans?

I think leaders of The Waco Tribune-Herald team had an interesting religion-beat story on their hands the other day, but it appears that they may not have known that.

It's easy to see the some predictable news trends looming over the recent headline: "Dwindling congregation forces sale of 133-year-old Waco Lutheran church."

There are several valid news angles here, the first of which is that lots of fading urban churches are being squeezed by similar financial and demographic issues. You can see that in this recent story from The Nashville Tennessean that was picked up for further distribution by Religion News Service.

If you visit the core streets and neighborhoods of almost any American city you will find lots of churches -- often from the old "Seven Sisters" flocks of liberal mainline Protestantism -- sitting on what is now prime real estate for re-developers appealing to the gentrification and young singles Millennial crowds. Many of these churches now face a tornado of red statistics, with aging members, low birthrates and declining numbers of converts.

Yes, there are doctrinal issues linked to some of those issues, especially in the American heartland and Bible Belt (think Waco, Texas). However, the Tribune-Herald team isn't very interested in these issues.

Hold that thought, while we look at some summary material near the top of this report. The symbolic voice is that of 94-year-old church member Joyce Heckmann:

Through the years, there were countless Christmas celebrations, church-wide smorgasbord dinners, Sunday school classes, Vacation Bible Schools and more.
But while the years have been kind to Heckmann, they have taken their toll on the aging church building and congregation, members say. The once-vibrant church family boasted 450 members, requiring an extensive expansion project that more than doubled the size of the building in 1958.
Now, members say, they are lucky to have 40 worshipers on Sunday morning. Members recently came to the painful but practical realization that their smallish group could no longer support such a large building.
So they voted to sell the property -- Texas Historical Commission landmark medallion and all -- to Christ Church Waco, an up-and-coming Anglican congregation that has met in least 10 temporary locations since it was formed in 2009.

Now stop the train right there for a minute.

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When covering the Lutheran left, Minneapolis daily kindly omits sobering journalistic questions

When covering the Lutheran left, Minneapolis daily kindly omits sobering journalistic questions

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is an amalgamation of three other Lutheran denominations, formed 29 years ago. When mainstream American journalists talk about "Lutherans," this is usually the crowd they are talking about.

The ELCA is also, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune reports, a church confronting changing times. In other words, this body is part of the ever-evolving world of liberal Protestantism, the "Seven Sisters" of the old mainline.

The paper's story begins with a typical journalistic scene-setter, at least the kind that is used when journalists are fond of the group that is being profiled:

Redeemer Lutheran Church is not your typical Lutheran outpost. Summer means the bike store and coffee shop are humming, kids camp and Zumba classes are in gear, and the young adults renting its apartments are mentoring children in this north Minneapolis neighborhood.
It represents a new model for the Lutheran Church, which is transforming itself to attract younger and diverse members, be more relevant to neighbors below its steeples and shake its image as a Scandinavian bastion best known for hot dish, Jell-O and Ole and Lena.

Anyone who regularly listened to Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion" stemwinders about life in and around Lake Woebegone, Minnesota, will recognize the stereotype, even if Keillor was actually raised in a Plymouth Brethren congregation.

The Minneapolis paper continues explaining, however, There is a dark cloud on the horizon:

Minnesota, with the largest number of Lutherans in the nation, will be instrumental in shaping the future of the faith. Time is of the essence: 37 percent of the churches in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America -- the largest denomination in Minnesota and the U.S. -- now have fewer than 50 Sunday worshipers. ...
Membership at the ELCA plunged from 5.2 million in 1988 to about 3.7 million today. In Minnesota, numbers fell from 782,000 to about 679,000.

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US Catholics sort of hug ELCA: Why do liberal, oldline flocks always seem to make news?

US Catholics sort of hug ELCA: Why do liberal, oldline flocks always seem to make news?

If you walked the religion-news beat in the 1980s, and especially if you covered mainline Protestants and the Episcopal Church, then you probably knew Bishop William C. Frey.

At that time, he was the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Colorado and he eventually (a) was the symbolic evangelical/charismatic candidate to become U.S. presiding bishop, then (b) he became president and dean of the evangelical Anglican School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pa. He now lives in retirement near San Antonio, Texas, and -- it helps that he speaks fluent Spanish -- remains active in ministry in that region.

Among reporters (of all theological stripes), Frey was known as one of the most candid and, with his previous work in mainstream radio, sound-bite articulate figures on the national scene. His wit was legendary.

So what does this have to do with this week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to listen) about that ecumenical document signed by U.S. Catholic leaders and the liberal Evangelical Lutheran Church in America? We are talking about the one that led to statements (see previous post here) that there were "are no longer church-dividing issues" between them.

Host Todd Wilken and I were curious as to why this document received so little attention in the mainstream press, since -- in the past -- this was precisely the kind of progressive, ecumenical event that drew banner headlines and then appeared in lists of the Top 10 religion-news stories of the year. Thus, we talked about why the oldline Protestant churches have always received so much attention and why, all of a sudden, that coverage may have faded.

This brings me to a classic Frey soundbite. Working on a column for the late, great Rocky Mountain News, I told the bishop about statements from several other local religious leaders who wanted to know why Colorado Episcopalians were always in the news. Some of them expressed what sounded like envy -- which made Frey laugh out loud.

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Painful church split in Twin Cities: But what kind of Lutherans are we dealing with here?

Painful church split in Twin Cities: But what kind of Lutherans are we dealing with here?

Attention all supporters of strong, accurate religion-beat reporting: What is the first question a journalist needs to answer for readers when covering a "Lutheran church" story, especially when it is linked to controversy?

Let me raise the stakes a bit higher. This question is especially true when dealing with a flock located in Minnesota or elsewhere in the upper Midwest, which is often called the Lutheran Belt in American life because there are so many Lutheran congregations in that region.

The question: So what kind of Lutherans are we talking about?

Are we dealing with a congregation in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which, despite the presence of the E-word in the name, is a liberal flock on key issues of doctrine and moral theology? Or how about the Lutheran Church -- Missouri Synod, located on the right side of the mainline Protestant world? Or how about the smaller Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, which is also more doctrinally conservative than the ELCA?

So check out the top of this major story in the St. Paul Pioneer Press earlier this month. Yes, you'll have to look for clues in this long passage:

North Heights Lutheran, the one-time megachurch of Arden Hills, has run out of prayers.
The church is shutting down, the apparent victim of a civil war that has split it apart. After 70 years of weekly worship, the church’s last service will be Sunday.
“This took me by surprise,” 20-year member Zelda Erickson said Monday after learning of the closing at an announcement during Sunday’s church service. “I feel terrible about this.”

North Heights once had Sunday attendance of 3,400 at two church locations. But attendance has fallen recently to several hundred -- not enough to keep the church afloat.

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Anglican ordinariates: Crux explains it well; the Houston Chronicle, not so much

Anglican ordinariates: Crux explains it well; the Houston Chronicle, not so much

For those of us who follow the ins and outs of Episcopalians, Anglicans and Catholics, there was an interesting development recently when the Vatican appointed a bishop to oversee 42 Anglican-rite North American churches. They had converted as congregations to Catholicism but retained some of their Anglican liturgies and customs, such as married clergy.

This group of Anglican churches is called an ordinariate and a system of bringing them into the Catholic fold was created in 2009 by Pope Benedict XVI. The priest he originally tapped to head it up was the Rev. Jeffrey Steenson, the former Episcopal bishop of the Albuquerque-based Rio Grande diocese (which is New Mexico and a corner of far west Texas).

Steenson was elected bishop in October 2004 and consecrated in January 2005. Then less then two years later in September 2007, he shocked his diocese by announcing he was turning Catholic and resigning his position. More on Steenson in a bit, but first see how the Houston Chronicle covered the new bishop:

Days before the Catholic Church announced Steven Lopes’ impending appointment as bishop, the 40-year-old cleric had a brief conversation with Pope Francis.
Lopes reminded the pontiff of the instructions he had given to new bishops, urging them to “tend to the flock of God that is in your charge” and not become “airport bishops.”
“I asked for a little exception,” Lopes said Tuesday, as about 50 people gathered in the sunlit Great Hall of Our Lady of Walsingham burst into laughter. “I imagine I’ll be on the road a lot.”

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