As I write this, preparations are being finalised for the in-person session of the 20th regular convention of general synod to be held in Melbourne in early February. While several matters are on the agenda, the most prominent topic will be the matter of the ordination of both women and men.
The LCANZ has now voted four times on the ordination question (2000, 2006, 2015 and 2018). While the vote in favour of the ordination of both women and men has received a majority vote each time, the votes have not reached the supermajority required for a change. It is interesting to note that the requirement for doctrinal changes to require a supermajority (2/3) was not adopted until 1984. Hence, if we had continued the same practice as we had at the time of the union in 1966, the LCANZ would have adopted the ordination of both men and women in 2000.
In my observation, our pastors are fairly evenly divided on the matter, whereas most lay delegates are in favour. As Bishop Paul Smith wrote in his report to the 2019 LCAQD convention of synod: ‘This has produced the following struggle amongst us: Those who hold the minority vote position believe it is important to uphold the unchanged teaching of the church. Those who hold the majority vote position believe it is important to enable what is consistently the majority position.’
It is important to remember, of course, that when we reduce a matter such as the ordination question to theological debates and concepts, we dehumanise the people this debate affects most profoundly – The women who acknowledge a strong inner call on their lives to serve in ordained ministry. They have not had the opportunity to have this inner call tested by the ‘outer’ call of a parish or other ministry context. This week’s eNews, therefore, includes an article by two people I am blessed to work alongside, Kathy Matuschka and Rachel Koopmans, who reflect on their call to ordained ministry.
The ordination question has been discussed in one form or another in the LCANZ for nearly 40 years. The 1997 general convention of synod asked the Commission on Theology and Interchurch Relations (CTICR) to finalise its study on the question of women being ordained as pastors. In response to this resolution, the CTICR released an initial report to the church in 1998. The paper’s primary purpose was to present the issues to the church. The majority decision of the commission was that ‘on balance, Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions allow the ordination of women.’ [i]
Since LCANZ pastors appear evenly divided on the matter, there is a strong likelihood that also those pastors elected to serve as bishops will have a personal conviction that Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions allow the ordination of women. As I shared in my report to the 2022 convention of district synod, this is my personal opinion. Personally, I agree with the CTICR’s statement from 1998: ‘On balance, Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions allow the ordination of women.’
Throughout my years in ordained ministry, I have openly shared my personal opinion on this matter with anyone who has asked. I am, however, a pastor of the LCANZ and our current public teaching and practice does not allow the ordination of women. Therefore, our church’s public teaching and practice is also my public teaching and practice. Currently, I find myself in the same liminal space as our entire church, where we have different personal opinions on the matter. In many ways, we find ourselves in a prolonged time of uncertainty.
As a pastor who is also called to be a servant-leader in the role of district bishop, I am committed to serving every person equally, no matter their view on the issue. For total transparency, it is important for me that I am open about my personal views on the matter, and I have therefore continued to share my views openly also after being elected district bishop. I also believe that transparency is important for us as a church so that this and other difficult conversations are not limited to whispers in backrooms among like-minded people but continue to be brought out into the open in a spirit of accountability, vulnerability, and openness.
As Lutherans, our theological tradition is not about a list of irreversible dogmatics. Our theological tradition is about a readiness to submit our teaching and practice to ongoing interaction with God’s Word. As Lutherans, our ongoing study of God’s Word guides us to endorse, change or revoke a teaching and practice if our study of God’s Word shows them to be lacking, wrong or no longer applicable. Sometimes we are reluctant to do this because we know the sacrifices made to facilitate the union of the two Lutheran synods in 1966.
The permanent status of the Theses of Agreement document, however, reminds us that, ‘Like all confessional statements, the Theses of Agreement are always under the authority of the Word of God, and therefore there must always be a readiness to submit them to the critical scrutiny of God’s Word and accordingly confirm them, or amend or repudiate them when further study of God’s Word shows them to be inadequate or in error. In that sense, their permanent status and authority are entirely determined by the faithfulness and accuracy with which they reflect the teaching of God’s Word, in particular the doctrine of the Gospel.’[ii]
I have studied God’s Word and the confessions humbly and honestly and have concluded that Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions allow the ordination of women. This is my sincere conviction. I know many others who have searched the Scriptures and studied our Lutheran Confessions, who have come to a different conclusion. They are sincere and honest in their conviction and bound by their consciences. We have arrived at an impasse. My prayer is that at this convention of general synod, we may be open to the Holy Spirit’s leading to find a way to acknowledge this while finding a creative solution to live together with our differences. Whatever we do, we should not pretend we are not broken.
Andrew McGowan of the Berkeley Divinity School at Yale said recently: ‘Being broken is not necessarily so bad; but to be broken and pretend we are not, is a recipe for disaster and mutual damage…our profound differences are neither to be ignored nor even always overcome, but they can be redeemed.’ We are the body of Christ together. I have learnt in my short time as bishop that just like our bodies heal if wounded or bruised, the body of Christ also heals. I have been surprised by joy, as people have reconciled after years of conflict and dissension. Our wounds can be redeemed by the one who is called the redeemer, our Lord Jesus Christ.
I will be retreating on my annual spiritual retreat just before the convention of general synod to rest and pray. Please join me in praying as we gather in synod. I finish with a prayer prepared by the LCANZ’s Commission on Worship:
‘Lord God, your Spirit has guided and protected the church through every age, and you are guiding and protecting us today. As we study the question of the ordination of both women and men, live in our hearts, direct our discussions and show us your will. Help us to “put on love” as we explore where we are of one mind, and the sensitive areas where we differ. Give us compassion and self-control so that we do not try to dominate, control or coerce. Help us listen to each other and to hear each other, trusting that you often speak to us through a brother or a sister. Open our hearts and minds to the possibility of being changed. Guide us and the whole church into your truth in the spirit of love. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.’
Prayerfully and Faithfully,
[i] Lutheran Church of Australia (2000), The final report of the Commission on Theology and Inter-Church Relations on the ordination of women, 1.
[ii] Lutheran Church of Australia (1976, reviewed 2001), The permanent status of the theses of agreement, Doctrinal Statements and Theological Opinions, Volume 1A, A31.