Curiouser and curiouser
Coinciding with — I almost said “echoing” — the release of Tim Burton’s new take on “Alice in Wonderland” is a different kind of journey down the rabbit hole. A strange episode is reported from the Florida-Bahamas Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) in which a congregation in Florida voted to leave the ELCA, and the synod council has now refused to allow them to withdraw from the denomination.
The congregation, St. Peter Lutheran Church in Fort Pierce, was originally founded by the Lutheran Church in America. As such, they followed an ELCA constitutional requirement that former LCA congregations must receive synodical approval to leave the denomination. The congregation disagreed with the ELCA’s 2009 churchwide assembly decisions regarding homosexuality, decisions which opened the door for “Lutherans in committed, publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous same-gender relationships to serve as ELCA clergy,” and voted 20-0 to withdraw from the ELCA. And now the synod council has decided not to grant permission for such a separation.
The Florida-Bahamas synod council cited “missional” concerns as the reason for their decision, and members of the council remarked how much prayer had preceded the action. The ELCA news story about the matter reports that this is the first time since last year’s churchwide assembly that a congregation’s decision to leave the church body has been refused, although some congregations in New York have been “respectfully requested” to stay after moving in the same direction as the Florida congrgation.
The story is, of course, partly about the continuing fallout from the 2009 ELCA decisions, actions which have had and will have far-reaching consequences for the ELCA and for global Lutheranism. But at another level, this case is strange, because it spotlights the complexity and ambivalence in contemporary relationships between local congregations and their denominations. If you still supposed that congregations are simply local franchises of their denominational “brands,” this latest wrinkle in American Lutheran church life should give you cause to rethink. As Alica would say, “Curiouser and curiouser.”