This morning LCA Bishop John Henderson gave the following oral report to the LCA’s 19th General Convention of Synod. It contains additional thoughts to those in his written report (Agenda 2.1.1) – click to view or download.
You have received my printed report, which we are taking as read. You will be able to ask questions about that report soon. First, however, I have a few minutes to address you. I want to talk about what the church is, who we are as Lutheran Christians, and why it matters. Perhaps this will help you better understand some of my statements in the written report.
This is the 19th General Convention of the LCA since 1966. Each convention has been a special moment in the life of our church. While they are costly in human and financial terms, we continue to hold them because they are moments of transparency and accountability. There’s no privileged class in the LCA which governs without reference to the people. The church speaks through the combined voice of its delegates from across Australia and New Zealand. You elect the leaders, set the priorities, and agree to an overall work plan. Then those you elect must gather the resources and set about organising things.
We are what the Germans call a ‘freikirche’: a free, independent church. We set our business by what we have already agreed to, and through fresh proposals from congregations and organisations. This year there’s a bewildering number of those and it will be a challenge to fit them all into the meeting schedule.
Conventions are notable for what we talk about, and for what we don’t. Some matters – such as the ordination issue – keep recurring. Other never or barely appear at all. We have all but forgotten, for instance, the powerful rite of reconciliation at the 2000 Convention. That year was our first vote on the ordination question, but more significant were the great strides we made that year on Aboriginal reconciliation. The LCA was at the vanguard of the national Indigenous agenda. But somehow we stopped talking about it and forgot how bold we were. Now, 18 years later, this very important matter is back on our agenda due to the vision of some who did not forget. I hope you will support it, because it truly matters.
A speaker at a conference I was at recently said, ‘the church is a project to be realised, not an artefact to be preserved’. If we focus on preserving the church as an artefact, it creates stress. We take our eyes off Jesus and fixate instead on some idealised form of the church. It makes us blind because that idealised church is a figment of our imagination. The gap between that and our real experience causes anxiety, and anxiety causes us to sin. When I was young we had a saying for times like that, ‘Let go, and let God’. Maybe you know it. The church has always been God’s project, and it always will be, God’s creation. We eagerly wait to see how that project turns out.
Nevertheless, we seem to have become a highly anxious people. I see it particularly in social media. Social media can be a good thing, but like many good things it also has a down side. It lacks the moderating influence of normal social discourse. As a result we’re becoming all too familiar with accusations of abuse, bad language, zealotry, calumny and general mischief. Christians, it seems, are not exempt from these excesses.
The human heart is a work in progress. We manage to live together in society because over the centuries we have developed social conventions that allow us to do that without killing each other. Such conventions help us hold our worst impulses in check. They convert our unmediated thoughts into healthy, sustaining conversations. The midnight keyboard of social media, however, ignores those conventions. People who would otherwise know better thoughtlessly broadcast their unmediated thoughts to others, without considering the impact. This becomes fertile ground for the devil to sow his lies, discord and hatred.
St James wrote to the church, ‘Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check … the tongue is a fire … placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell … With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so’ (James 3:8–10). James knew nothing of words typed on a keyboard appearing simultaneously on hundreds of screens, but it’s the same thing.
The 8th commandment is also clear, ‘You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour’. The Small Catechism explains, ‘We should fear and love God, and so we should not tell lies about our neighbour, nor betray, slander, or defame him, but should apologise for him, speak well of him, and interpret charitably all that he does’. I am comforted that there are people who nobly set about this task on social media sites, trying to calm the excesses.
If social media in the church causes you anxiety, I suggest you develop a plan. Regulate your use and only go online at selected times. Use the time you might have spent checking posts to pray, and pour your heart out to God. Give him the full force of your worst impulses. There’s plenty of Biblical precedent for doing that. Identify what makes you anxious. Rather than slavishly following a distressing post, pick up a hard copy of the Bible and listen to God. Find a flesh and blood believer whom you trust, or phone one, for mutual conversation and consolation. And if you become afraid and angry, let God to take that bad feeling away before you go to sleep that night.
No period in history shows us a perfect portrait of what the church should be like. We are continually subject to the twists and turns of the world, our society, and ourselves. Culture, for instance, has always been a major, yet shifting, influence. The historical church developed its great liturgies in quite specific cultural periods. They recount the history of salvation in ways comprehensible to the people of that time. I find those historic liturgies meaningful and magnificent. They immerse me in the meta-narrative of salvation, and they connect me with the more personal narrative of my own faith. They transport my soul to heaven. But culturally we now live in a different era. People don’t hear those sublime truths in those liturgies to the same extent. We are far more concerned with the present moment, and with individual freedom of expression. People today focus on what they have, don’t have, or want. You can see it in our songs, prayers, devotions and reflections. Whatever you think about it, the church has changed with the times. That’s who human beings are. God works with that as his raw material, and so must we. Of course we say that the gospel doesn’t change, but the gospel, I have found, is many things to many people. How we work with the gospel, and give it expression, does change.
As Jesus said, ‘every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old’ (Matthew 13:52).
The sexual abuse scandal is evidence that the church has never been a perfect society. While a few of us still long for the post-war world of the ‘50s and ‘60s, when things seemed bright and shiny and we were growing in numbers, the scrutiny of the Royal Commission has cast a shadow over those bright hopes. Our assumptions about decency and trust have blown up in our faces. The abuse committed by a significant minority implicates all of us in their sin. So now we are obligated to inquire, to lift up the covers, to ask what lies underneath, and open up issues that previously were unspeakable.
I’m not surprised this offends people. What has happened is an offence to all of us. People will push back on new policies and procedures, such as Professional Standards. But we know, as we work at getting the balance right, that truth is not just a matter of knowing Scripture, but of living Scripture, corporately and personally, in everyday life.
The Book of Hebrews says the word of God is sharper than any double-edged sword, and the Bible is scathing of those who say that they have the truth, but fail to live by it (James 2:14–26). This goes beyond the regular cycle of repentance, confession and forgiveness, which is the life-rhythm of all baptised believers. We have now entered a shadow world that lies beneath such normality. It a repugnant place where people exploit the very best things of faith, to use them as a smokescreen to indulge themselves and deceive others about their weaknesses and depravity. But God is not deceived. It’s confronting to bring these abhorrent behaviours to the light, yet they have happened right beneath our noses. We must make every effort to uncover the assumptions that have not only allowed this evil, but made excuses for it, giving no opportunity for such aberrant behaviour to breed among us. Of course we won’t create a perfect society, but in the name of Christ we must place ourselves at the forefront of protecting vulnerable people. Let nothing we do cause one of God’s little ones to stumble. It’s tough. Those affected by these new standards, innocent or guilty, often cry foul. But we must resolve to see this through for the sake of God’s little ones.
Finally, a brief word on just one aspect of the ministry. The question in my mind about the ordained ministry is, ‘In whose interests does it operate’? There’s a phenomenon among churches called ‘clericalism’. It’s the idea that the clergy are a privileged class of Christians. I believe that such clericalism is alien to Lutherans and our theology. Our pastors are not a superior class of Christian. Very, very few would think like that. Pastors are the servants of the church, and all of us, lay and ordained, serve only one Lord, Jesus Christ.
When we turn to Christ together, and pastors lead us on the saving journey of Christ’s birth, ministry, betrayal, crucifixion, death, descent into hell, resurrection and ascension, then our church has its proper direction. That’s why I hold that the liturgical cycle is so important for congregational life. In Christ there are no ‘us’ and ‘them’ agendas. He mediates all relationships. Pastors will submit to Christ and serve the people with humility. The people, whose church this is, will submit to Christ and support their pastors in their service.
It is a rare thing to be a pastor. Where else could you receive a tangible income to study, preach, and administer the word of God? Of course, most SMPs do not receive a tangible income, yet they selflessly undertake the work in any case. The position is so privileged that every pastor must be especially careful with the high trust they receive, and the sacrificial support of lay people. I am so saddened when I hear of disputes over manses, holidays, and other terms and conditions of service. An analysis of the church’s income would indicate that the majority, if not the vast majority, of money raised in our church goes into paying for the ordained ministry. To the people of the church, I can only say, ‘Thank you’. To the pastors of the church I can only say, ‘Do not waste their sacrifice’. We are all in this together because in Christ there is no distinction. We all serve in the interests of Christ, and all pastors operate in the interests of the people of God.
And I guess that sums it up. God calls the church together as a community of worship and service. Each of us a part in that community. And on the day when Jesus returns, he will reveal to us the church he has been building in all its glory. So let us praise him, now and forever.