The church we could have been…and can still be

by Jodi Fondell

The outcomes from both the Covenant Annual Meetings in Minneapolis in 2018 and Omaha in 2019 resulted in lines being drawn in the sand around the subject of same-sex marriage. This left many of us feeling like we have no idea who the Evangelical Covenant Church is anymore, or how best minister to the LGBTQ community. It wasn’t so much that the denominational position remained in a static, unwavering conservative place as much as it related to the squelching of any attempt to agree to disagree or enter into faithful dissent regarding the current position. The question of Covenant freedom came into clear focus, but sadly, there was never any room given for that tenant to be fully explored by scholars, pastors, and laypeople.

Much of what came to a head in Omaha had been fomenting for years during the season that my husband and I were co-pastors of the Immanuel International Fellowship in Stockholm, Sweden (Immanuelskyrkan). The Mission Covenant Church of Sweden (now Equmeniakyrkan or the Uniting Church in Sweden), was also wrestling with the reality of same-sex marriage. When same-sex marriage became legal in Sweden in 2009, the role of clergy in relationship to this new law came under scrutiny. The question of theological difference emerged, especially among more conservative clergy who could not in good conscious feel right about marrying a same-sex couple. The church decided to allow local congregations to decide for themselves whether or not they wanted to participate in same-sex marriages. And even if a particular church adopted an affirming stance, it was also stated that any clergy working in an affirming church who faithfully disagreed with that position had the right to decline officiating at a same-sex wedding, but their pastoral commitment was to help the couple find a pastor who would. This allowed for a great range of positions in the broader church and prevented the denomination from having to take a hard line in either direction with clergy or congregations.

From my vantage point, this position has not created rifts or caused a major breakdown of unity within the denomination. In fact, at Immanuelskyrkan the clergy held a wide range of opinions on this topic and we were able to faithfully abide with one another even in the midst of our differences.

That is why during the year that ensued after the Minneapolis meeting, when clergy suspensions were upheld and pastors continued to come under discipline for officiating at same-sex weddings, I vigorously offered the Swedish model. It was continuously shut down by those who insisted that it would never work. But it does work. In the Swedish Covenant Church.

The ECC could have taken many different pathways before it hit the nuclear option of ex-communicating First Covenant Minneapolis. There could have been more careful study of LGBTQ relationships, study that actually invited a range of opinions rather than simply gathering those who agreed with the stated position. There could have been more room to explore in rich, careful, and meaningful ways what it means for local congregations to decide for themselves how they want to minister to others, and how exactly Covenant freedom plays itself out in the day-to-day ministries of our local churches. There could have been a lifting of the ban on clergy to participate in same-sex weddings when pastors felt it was the best ministry we could offer to those in our care, understanding that the position was dividing families and causing rifts between pastors and parishioners. We could have agreed to disagree, uncomfortable as this would be when people have such strong feelings about this topic. But the courage to choose a more difficult pathway just wasn’t there.

So now we have congregations in our denomination who wish to be affirming and embracing of the LGBTQ community, including allowing them to enjoy the covenant of marriage. Such congregations now find themselves facing a denomination that tells them they no longer belong. Go find another home was repeatedly the position of those who did not want to budge in any way on this concern. We have clergy who are faced with the choice to disappoint family, friends, or congregants who want them to be involved in their union by saying ‘no’ to an invitation to wed them or face the scrutiny of the board of ministry who has clearly set a no tolerance bar for this particular action.

The ECC has never taken such a hard line on a theological issue. We continue to allow churches who disregard the ordination of women and refuse to perform infant baptisms to abide with us. We have churches who exhibit a racial bias, doing little to pursue the gospel of justice for all, and yet, no punishment or monitoring is done in those cases.

The deep sadness for so many of us is that we could have been the denomination we always believed we were – one that embraced a range of theological opinions and lived within that tension. I will never understand why a congregation in rural Minnesota has such a strong opinion about how a congregation in downtown Minneapolis wants to minister to others. Why is it so egregious to sit with the tension that occurs when faithful people come to different conclusions on how same-sex relationships in today’s society fit into God’s economy? The Ministerium never took time to really wrestle with these issues in a forum that was healthy. The Ministerium Facebook page was a toxic environment, dominated by a few dogmatic voices that continuously shut down any attempt at actually wrestling with tensions. The leadership of the ECC was not open to anything except upholding the “discerned position.” So many of us cried out, “Who discerned the position and why is it immovable?”

What could have been different? The Ministerium absolutely should have taken time to discuss the implications of the position, what it means to truly agree to disagree, and vote on a desired course of action for clergy. The denomination should have considered the Swedish model with more rigor, actually engaging leaders from Sweden who walked the road that led them to their position. We should have heard from Swedish leaders who are living with the tension of having varied viewpoints on this topic and listened to how it is unfolding. And the ECC should have been more willing to discuss Covenant freedom from a thoughtful, multi-opinion perspective that might have helped us discern a truly Covenant position.

Those happy with the outcomes of Omaha assert what they view as integrity to the Bible as the core value of the ECC and anything that deviates from that cannot be tolerated. But I still contend that the biblical study that was done in relationship to the issue of same-sex marriage was not done with integrity. Instead, it was done in an echo chamber that guaranteed the outcome that the leaders wanted. To me, this undercuts the very core values of what it means to be Covenant, and we are left with a denomination that many of us do not recognize. I can only hope that those in power will eventually recognize the shortsightedness of pursuing this position.

The cry of so many of us is to be a church where we really do agree to disagree and for the sake of the gospel, agree to live with the tension that a difference of theological interpretation inevitably brings. We can only hope that not too much damage will be done in the meantime.