‘We need a way forward’: Delegates reflect on Synod decision
Delegates at General Synod voted by a strong majority to seek a way forward in the decades-long ordination debate. They asked the General Church Board and College of Bishops to explore how the LCANZ might operate as ‘one church with two ordination practices’. We asked eight Synod participants for their reflections on the resolution. These are their responses.
ROB EDWARDS, PASTOR DELEGATE, QLD
We need a plan. As I stood up at Synod to speak, I was acutely aware that there was nothing I could say or do that would change the minds of anyone in the room, or anyone in the church, for that matter, about the issue of the ordination of both men and women. We had discussed this topic for 30 years, and the time for that discussion had passed. What we needed was a plan, a way to move forward, and move forward together.
You see, we had changed, and we are going to do something. I think many people believe we are still trying to work out what we are going to do about ordination. That decision has been made. Some reject the idea of women’s ordination, while some support the idea. We are divided on the issue, and sooner or later, this could lead to a divided path. The substance of the LCA had changed, and we needed a new approach if we were to move forward. The church is divided, and that division will manifest more and more as time goes by. This need not be.
As I stood, waiting to speak, delayed by endless ‘points of order’, I pondered what I would say before I managed to take my turn at the microphone.
We needed to walk out of that room with a plan. The resolution from Box Hill has been voted down, and the Queensland resolution was now up for discussion. It was in danger of suffering the same fate. What could we do? I believed firmly at that time that we had about one hour of unity left in the church. Our job as delegates was to come away from that meeting with a plan. Our congregations back home expected it and needed it. To do anything less would be to provide a leadership vacuum that could lead to chaos. We had to come up with a plan that recognised the situation as it was and provide a way in which we could remain united as a church, respect one another’s stand on ordination and get on with the business of the church.
The question before us was not whether or not we ordain women. We had already discussed that, and it is pointless to continue. The question before us is, ‘How do we function as a church with these two ways of thinking? Is it possible to carry out the Great Commission together?’ The issue of ordination is, after all, not the most important issue or matter facing the church, but it is where we are spending all of our time. Of far greater importance is the Great Commission.
As my turn eventually came, I found myself encouraging the church to grab this plan and run with it. Not because it was the best plan ever, nor that it would solve all of our problems, but because it gave us an opportunity to stay united as one church, and because it was a plan. The only thing worse than a bad plan is no plan, and this was far from a bad plan. As no-one was announcing a better plan, we needed to go with this one. To leave that Synod with no plan was to abdicate our responsibility, put our heads in the sand (something which ostriches don’t even do), and set the church up for chaos. As is said in the ADF, ‘A second-rate plan delivered in a timely way, beats the best plan, delivered too late, every time’.
We need a plan that recognises where we are and what we are called to do. We need a plan that recognises our differences but also our calling. And while we are talking about ministry, we need to broaden our definition of ministry to include all believers.
PASTOR DAVID WEAR, CHAPLAIN, VIC
It seems to me that we are past debating the issue of women’s ordination, past trying to convince people that a particular position is right. I think the leaders of the church need to bring together a diverse and fresh group of people who are willing to listen to what Scripture has to say about church unity and fellowship and are willing to listen to each other and prayerfully explore a way through this impasse. I’m convinced that we need to make peace and have a solution before the battle starts again at the next Convention of Synod in 2024.
My hope is that we find a way forward that is acceptable to those who believe Scripture permits the ordination of women (and feel it’s an injustice that women are prohibited) and is also acceptable to those who are conscience bound to the church’s current teaching based on Scripture (as stated in the Theses of Agreement article 6 paragraph 11).
We’ve now had five votes on the ordination of women in the LCA. I wonder, are we really going to come back next year and vote for the sixth time on bringing women’s ordination into the LCA? Are we seriously going to vote on a reworded version of the last proposal we voted on – that would essentially just allow congregations to decide what they want to do? Surely, we’re not going to put ourselves through that again.
If we were to have ‘one church, with two practices’ (two teachings), I wonder how on earth could we come together for a General Pastors Conference. I wonder how on earth could we come together for a General Convention of Synod. There are going to be people who cannot commune in good conscience with a female pastor officiating. As sad as that might seem, it’s the reality we need to face.
Maybe we need to consider the possibility that a loving and peaceful separation into two Synods could be what glorifies God, gives a better witness to the world and enables a more genuine unity as outlined in Scripture (eg 1 Cor 1:10; 2 Cor 13:11). To my way of thinking, it wouldn’t have to be like the ‘bad old days’ of the UELCA and ELCA … Forming two distinct Synods may not be far more complicated, on a practical level, than trying to work out how we have ‘one church, with two practices’ (two teachings). I think we need to be open to all kinds of possibilities, as we seek God’s will and prayerfully come under the word.
There is love between people on both ‘sides’. I hope and pray that enough ‘love comes to life’ before the next Convention of Synod and God brings a proposal forward that people on both ‘sides’ can get behind. A proposal that adequately deals with the reality of our disunity and sets us free from this debate, sets us free to keep loving one another and working together on some things – even as we are set free to interpret the word as we are conscience-bound to interpret it.
I feel like we are the Israelites up against the Red Sea, with no viable way forward – but God can provide a way. Let’s draw upon the Holy Spirit, who works through the word. Let’s trust in our loving Father and keep praising Jesus who loves us all!
MANUELA SWIFT, LAY DELEGATE, WA
I believe the LCANZ has reached the point of acknowledging that we can’t keep having the same debate as it’s not getting us anywhere. I think the LCANZ exploring what the church would look like as one church and two practices is a really healthy step forward. It allows delegates and our congregation to begin thinking through how this might look practically. I think that’s a step we’ve probably never really stopped to think about over the years of the ordination debate. However, I acknowledge that this certainly isn’t the desired outcome for both sides of the debate. I pray that the Holy Spirit may unify us as a church, showing the grace and mercy God has shown us first to each other.
I hope this will be the best resolution for those on both sides of the argument. I am hoping this is the best next step to especially keep our church unified. Honestly, in 30 years’ time when I attend Synod, I don’t want to be debating the ordination of women – I want to be having genuine conversations about our mission as the church and how we can equip communities better to ‘go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’.
I read Esther chapter 4 recently, about Esther asking Mordecai to gather the Jews together to fast and pray before Esther went to the king. I think this is something we need to do together as the LCANZ – we need to fast and pray, lean into God and ask for him to prepare our hearts and the church for whatever the outcome will be at our next Synod.
I think each of us needs to pray for our church leaders who are researching and putting the proposal together for our next Synod. This is a pretty big task ahead of us as a church, and we need God’s wisdom and mercy more than ever! We might not be the ones doing the research or writing the proposal, but we can be the ones lifting our church leaders up in prayer and asking God to give them strength, ideas and endurance over the next 18 months.
I think on a community or congregational level, it is important that we begin having conversations about one church and two practices. I think this is so important because we need people to be prepared and aware of the steps the LCANZ is taking and don’t want people to feel hurt or left out of the loop, especially leading up to Synod 2024.
Thank you to our church leaders for willingly following God’s calling for you and serving our church in this way. I know it isn’t easy, but trust that the Lord will give you strength in your task. I would want to encourage our church leaders who are putting this proposal together to really think outside of the box, think big, crazy and bold because God will make what seems impossible, possible, and we can trust in that.
I’ll be drawing my strength in prayer and the word of God. I think leading up to Synod, I might even spend a couple of days fasting and praying for God’s wisdom and direction in this conversation.
As we head into the 2024 Synod, I would love to see more young people attending Synod. I absolutely understand that a lot of people find meetings boring (trust me, I’ve been there too!). But I would love for young people to be involved in these important conversations, especially as in 20 years’ time, we’ll be the ones who will be teaching the next generation how the business of Synod works. So, congregations, if there is a young person in your community, encourage them, provide them with leadership opportunities, and pray for them. Young people are passionate, so give them a space to share their passion!
MARK TUNG, LAY DELEGATE, NZ
I feel this resolution helps to provide a framework for the church to move forward. People are free to choose their own practice while keeping unity. Frankly speaking, if this debate continues, the internal friction will only increase and exhaust the vitality of the church.
In the last 30 years, Australia and New Zealand’s population grew by almost 12 million from 1990 to 2020. With this massive growth, the LCANZ actually went backward in numbers. While many immigrants moved into Australasia and many denominations capture this opportunity, the LCANZ seems to be at a standstill debating this one topic for many decades and forgot about the mission we’re called to do.
The 2023 Synod was the first one I attended, but I was already surprised that this one topic could take up so much time and other important topics – such as preaching to the immigrants, cross-culture missions, and growing our youth – are all put on the back burner. These are critical things we need to do, and they too deserve some time.
As a young immigrant growing up in New Zealand for more than 20 years, I see a massive opportunity to revive the church by preaching the gospel to the immigrants – God is bringing our mission to our doorsteps. But I do not see the church taking action.
I’m backing this ‘one church, two practices’ model, as it can finally put the debate aside and get the church moving again.
I believe we should give some congregations the chance to practise this new model and observe the outcome. If this new model brings positive changes to the ministry, then it is worth further investigation and testing.
Each of us needs to keep an open mind – knowing that a lot of our Lutheran brothers and sisters around the world are already having women ordained and have even had female bishops for a long time, it is worth trying here in the LCANZ.
Moreover, there are many female lecturers in the Adelaide theology college teaching men who are going to become pastors. If male pastors are learning from female teachers, meaning that females are capable and qualified to teach God’s words, why do we keep stopping them?
As congregations and communities, we can also keep an open mind and give it a try! Stop judging and restart the mission!
There are many Lutheran churches outside LCANZ that had gone before us – they can provide valuable experiences and suggestions for how we can progress on this matter.
FRASER PEARCE, PASTOR DELEGATE, SA
In principle, there is nothing wrong with having a variety of practices in the church. However, when different practices represent different and even contrary teachings in the church, then the unity and mission of the church is, at best, impaired.
In the Great Commission, our Lord Jesus says, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age’.
In the LCA, we have spent many years debating whether the prohibition of the ordination of women is the Lord’s command because we know that keeping his commands is central to living out our mission as God’s people. It is my conviction that our teaching does, in fact, faithfully reflect Jesus’ will for the church. It is not clear to me how we as an LCA would be able to carry out our mission and be faithful to Jesus’ commands if we were to have different teachings on ordination, lived out in different practices.
I cannot see any living and working example of two different teachings on ordination coexisting in one stable church, for any reasonable length of time.
If the LCA were to allow all congregations to call and ordain women pastors, if they so desired, then that is not something I could support. If the LCA were to break up into districts that had different practices based on different teachings, then it would seem to me that the districts would thus hold different confessions and so be different Synods/churches. This would be a lamentable outcome.
In the history of the church, God has brought great good out of apparently difficult, unpleasant or protracted debates on doctrine and practice. Just think of St Paul’s letter to the Galatians: out of the dispute on the doctrine and practice regarding the necessity of circumcision for male Gentile believers, God gave us some of the clearest teachings on justification by grace, for Christ’s sake, through faith. Jesus is the Lord of the church, and we can patiently trust that he will bring good things out of this challenging time in the life of our church.
HELEN BRINKMAN, LAY DELEGATE, QLD
The LCANZ General Synod in-person session opened with a church singing in unison, being bound together by God’s love. As a first-time delegate, I was humbled to be part of a large, diverse community of worshippers. Diversity in all its forms came to pray together, worship together, and discern God’s will for our church. When we sang together, we sang in one voice. Generational, geographic, or gender diversity added to our harmony.
Our church has been working through its different views for decades, chief among them has been the debate around the theological foundations of our ordination practice. The LCANZ is a church that is so loved by its members that not even 30 years of debate about ordination has broken it asunder.
However, this Synod acknowledged the hurt that has been created through this protracted, unresolved dialogue. It acknowledged that a failure to find a way of working together across the diversity of views and theological positions is hurting our church.
So the successful Queensland District resolution to explore ‘one church, two practices of ordination’ is a vital step forward. It provides an important framework to map out how the church can work with two different practices.
During Synod, WA Bishop Michael Fulwood painted a beautiful picture of the Japanese art of Kintsugi, where broken pottery pieces are bound back together with gold, building on the idea that in embracing our flaws and imperfections, we can create an even stronger, beautiful piece of art.
I pray that God will bless our General Church Board as it works through the requirements to operate as one church with different practices. Despite our flaws and imperfections, I pray that God can use this process to create an even stronger church, where our diversity is celebrated.
PASTOR RICHARD SCHWEDES, PASTOR DELEGATE, NSW
As I walked from Melbourne’s International Convention Centre (aka Jeff’s shed – ironic because Jeff was a man who got things done), my mind was popping all over the place. It was full of a smorgasbord of emotions following the LCANZ synodical Convention. Fortunately, hope dominated my thinking. Hope that as a church, we finally have a path forward. Hope that we can be a church focused on Jesus and his mission. Hope that we can actually be the diverse church God calls us to be. Hope that we can accommodate both opinions around ordination … Hope that the majority of delegates don’t feel they’re being ignored …
Then my thoughts drift back to some of the discussions I had, some of the responses to decisions people had, some of the stalling tactics that were played out to stop discussion, some of the hurts people expressed, some of the ‘I want it my way’ and demonising attitudes from both sides of the discussion, the stubbornness, the friends who have left the church or are threatening to leave over this and other matters, that at times we seem to be a church committed to serving process and governance than being served by process and governance, and even some of the apathy that at times I have fallen into … and I wonder is it possible to be a church with two teachings?
Then over a number of days in my daily devotions, I was reminded to keep focused on Jesus … and straight away, hope became a powerful voice again.
Now focusing on Jesus did not lead me to have hope that we will get a nice clear answer that everyone will agree with, nor will it mean others will hear the Scriptures as I hear them or that church life will become nice, neat and orderly (in fact, my Bible reading reminds me this rarely happens on earth) … but the focusing on Jesus is leading me to prayer, to listening even more to God and the different Christian perspectives around this and other issues, to go forward trusting God, even though I don’t have all the answers or information (just like those early Israelites who left Egypt), to continue to be prepared to live and work with a diverse range of people in the Lutheran Church (just like those in the early church that Paul was helping and pastoring), and most importantly, to keep focused on being his missionary and disciple just where I am so others can connect with him and gain life from him even though life is messy and people differ. (Perhaps this is the message the world needs to hear at present … that God loves a diverse range of people, even people who see some aspects of life and the Bible differently.)
So I pray that, as we move forward into exploring being one church with two practices, Jesus and his gospel of forgiving and saving all remains our guiding and main focus.
HELEN MARTUL, LAY DELEGATE, SA
I was a novice Synod delegate as this was my first time attending. There were many passionate speakers both for and against the ordination of both men and women.
I fully support the endorsed resolution as it provides a way forward and a conclusion to the lengthy discussions that have dominated the agenda for so long.
This ongoing debate and division has crippled the church such that we have been unable to engage in meaningful dialogue about challenges presented in our ever quickly changing environment. It is time to confront reality in the context of our mission, to focus on bringing the healing gospel of Jesus Christ to our broken and despairing world.
The resolution provides a clear timeframe and expectation for the ordination of women while maintaining one church.
All members, individuals and congregations, pastors and committees, along with departments, need to accept the clear Synod support for the resolution and ‘Come, Listen and Live’. In particular, we need to listen and embrace everyone rather than sabotage. At the same time, leaders need to engage, consult, communicate and manage milestones that can be completed and celebrated.
What an opportunity we have to walk with each other and with God, trusting that he will always provide his love and grace.
What a blessing we enjoy!!
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