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Lutheran Language Mirrors Country's Confusion

erku's picture

After struggling for years with the issue of gays and lesbians “in the pulpit,” the largest group of Lutherans in the United States (the ELCA), voted by a relatively small margin to allow gays and lesbians who are “either celibate or who are in a committed, monogamous relationship,” to serve as clergy (August 21, 2009).

The group judiciously avoided the issue of (and the word) “marriage,” yet avowed that the churches’ standard for gays and lesbians is now the same as that for heterosexuals.

Oh my. What a mess we have gotten ourselves into through the years.

To be clear, I totally support religious groups doing whatever they wish, and I definitely support couples of any stripe doing whatever they wish that doesn’t hurt others. This includes whatever happens in the bedroom or at 35000 feet in the bathroom of an airplane. My lamentation is that we have gotten so badly stuck in the muck of definition that our religious organizations and our government are inexorably inter-twined—much more so than is healthy for either institution—and they are literally pulling one another down. To give you an idea of how thick the rhetorical quicksand has become, have a look at the headline in the San Francisco Chronicle (August 22, 2009) about the Lutherans’ vote:

“Lutherans to Allow Sexually Active Gays as Clergy”

The poor Lutherans had to have said, “Ouch.” This looks like a headline that should have been used in Italy after Vatican II; and this version is from San Francisco, a bastion of gay and lesbian rights—we can all imagine what a creative headline would look like announcing the same news in a center of conservatism.

The Lutherans’ language problem mirrors that of the whole country. We operate on the fear of what might be rather than the acknowledgment of what is. In this case, there is a solution:

We need to get the church out of the civil union business, and get the state out of the marriage business.

Civil unions establish civil rights. Any couple, regardless of sex, preference, or age, should be able to pledge their respective troths for life and enjoy the same legal benefits and perils of doing so. This pledge can be made in an office with a judge and a couple of witnesses and sanctified by signing a contract. This is the business of the state.

Marriage, on the other hand is covenant between two people and whatever or whoever they deem their higher spiritual authority. It should be done with friends, family and an intermediary if the couple wish. It can last all day, and while it would have no legal consequences, it would add a level of commitment for those who wish to make such a public and sacred declaration. The “minister” would not utter the words, “Now by the power invested in me”….because no power would be invested in him or her by the state. His or her power, and the couple’s commitment, would be a response and a pledge to a higher authority.

When a baby comes into the world, there is a birth certificate and a social security card. Then, if the baby is lucky, the parents arrange for a baptism or its equivalent, when the baby’s real family pledges their love and support for the baby’s life, in front of and in commitment to god. No one asks about the baby’s sexual preference.

Civil Unions and Marriages should be like that.

Shouldn’t we make such a sane move - if only to make it easier on the Lutherans?

Written by Terry Pearce
Blog on Cross-cultural Inspiration at

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