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Bishop Mark Hanson (right), Presiding Bishop of the ELCA, with Brach Jennings, a member of Proclaim, the self-described "professional community for publicly identified LGBTQ Lutheran rostered leaders and seminarians."  (Photo credit: Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries)

Bishop Mark Hanson (right), Presiding Bishop of the ELCA, with Brach Jennings, a member of Proclaim, the self-described “professional community for publicly identified LGBTQ Lutheran rostered leaders and seminarians.” (Photo credit: Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries)

By John Lomperis (@JohnLomperis)

United Methodists and liberal Lutherans should unite against orthodox Christians!

That was the message conveyed by Mark Hanson, Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), to members of the Connectional Table of the United Methodist Church, who met earlier this week. Bishop Hanson’s opportunity to briefly address the United Methodist Church leaders was extended as a courtesy, since the meeting took place in the ELCA’s Chicago headquarters, where the Connectional Table rents office space. He was joined by Kathryn Lohre, the ELCA’s Director for Ecumenical and Inter-Religious Relations and current president of the leftist National Council of Churches (NCC).

Hanson and Lohre unsurprisingly celebrated the “full communion” agreement into which the two denominations entered in 2009. Ms. Lohre expressed hope for deeper, more “intensive” partnership between the two denominations, thanked the UMC’s generous financial support of the struggling NCC, cheered the controversial political activism of the NCC and the UMC’s own General Board of Church and Society (GBCS), and announced that her ecumenical council will soon be seeking a new General Secretary. While Bishop Hanson broadly cheered ecumenism and “proclaiming Christ crucified and risen” it was not clear if the ELCA chief actually believes that Jesus Christ literally, physically rose from the dead or if he adheres to the common heresy among his fellow liberal Protestants that uses the language of resurrection as a mere metaphor (given the disbelief of many secularized Protestant thinkers in a God who can or does truly miraculously intervene in human history).

As Bishop Hanson portrayed it, the meat of the value of the UMC-ELCA full-communion partnership is for the two shrinking oldline denominations to form a united front to oppose and counter the voices of more orthodox, biblically faithful American Christians. While lamenting that others have “the dominant Christian voice in this culture,” Hanson uncharitably denounced the current mainstream of American Christianity for being “divisive” and “partisan.”

Hanson’s accusation is rather curious on several fronts.

On the consummately partisan issue of Congressional budget negotiations, this is the same Bishop Mark Hanson who during the Bush II era was rather unrestrained in denouncing the Republican side as “injustice and immorality” while insisting that there could be no room for disagreement among faithful Christians of good will on such prudential public-policy judgments, since “the Biblical standard is irrefutable.” In his recent address to the Connectional Table, he bragged about his own liberal political activism on immigration and Middle East issues.  (Although to be fair, it is worth noting that his position on the latter is more aligned with the left wing of the Democratic Party rather than with the Party’s mainstream.) Under Bishop Hanson’s leadership the ELCA (along with the NCC) routinely sponsors and funds a variety of highly partisan, lefty political activism efforts, such as the recently-concluded Ecumenical Advocacy Days in Washington, DC. One would be hard-pressed to find a single significant religious organization in America today which is as blatantly politically partisan as the NCC. And contrary to the projective fantasies of ideologically and socially sheltered liberals, at the level of individual pastors, seminarians, congregations, and denominational hierarchies, it is relatively rather rare to find conservative Christians who devote as much of their ministries to political activism, on as broad a range of debatable issues and with as much partisan predictability, as their liberal Protestant counterparts.

It seems that Bishop Hanson would have been more honest if he had just admitted that he wishes the voice of American Christianity would be more politically partisan, only on what he sees as the correct side of the political aisle.

As for the charge of division, this is something with which Bishop Hanson has a good deal of experience. In 2009, the ELCA liberalized its stance on sexual morality to revoke bars on ordaining homosexually active individuals.  (ELCA pastors serving UMC congregations still have to abide by the UMC’s biblical moral standards.) Last year, Bishop Hanson was the keynote speaker for the denomination’s main LGBT caucus. As Hanson himself admitted to the Connectional Table, the sexuality liberalization initially (along with the nation’s economic crisis at the time) caused the denomination to slash its budget by $20 million and lay off 100 staffers.  In addition to the exodus of hundreds of ELCA churches, including some of its most “vital congregations,” and reported “bullying” by the ELCA hierarchy of orthodox ELCA-ers, the ELCA’s rejection of biblical teaching has led to the severing of long-held partnerships with other Lutherans overseas.

And yet according to the ELCA leader’s logic, it somehow makes sense to intentionally divide yourself from the rest of the body of Christ, publicly denounce and proclaim your opposition to these Christians, and then claim that they are the ones being “divisive.” Apparently Bishop Hanson has no more interest in living out John 13:35 than in upholding Scriptural teaching on sexual morality.

Perhaps most theologically troubling is Bishop Hanson’s categorical suggestion that the Christian message to a religiously mixed public should never be “divisive.” One could cite numerous biblical teachings about the inherent, inevitable divisiveness of the person of Jesus Christ (Matthew 1:1 through John 21:25 is a good starting point), or about the seemingly anti-social divisiveness of early Christians’ refusal to participate in communal pagan rituals.

But under Bishop Hanson’s leadership, the ELCA seems to have evolved beyond that past. Having formally rejected Scriptural authority and progressed into something Martin Luther would never recognize, the “Lutheran” denomination in which I spent the bulk of my childhood, and through which my grandparents spent 40 years as missionaries in India, now seems to be irretrievably on the downward trajectory of “Progressive Christianity.” So it makes perfect sense that liberal ELCA leaders would increasingly invite leaders in other denominations to join them in similarly progressing beyond Scripture and their respective theological traditions in hopes of adding numerical and financial support to the promotion of a vision of faith which is increasingly indistinguishable from Unitarian Universalism.

But any United Methodist who cares about the spiritual faithfulness and communal survival of our denominational would do well to reject this invitation.

To put it bluntly, there may not simply be much of anything left of the ELCA after its baby-boomer members die off with no one to replace them.  Is this really the same future we want for the United Methodist Church?

For decades, we United Methodists, at the U.S. national level, have put almost all of our ecumenical eggs in the one basket of the increasingly narrow, shrinking segment of the most secularized wing of American Protestantism, while not pursuing similar dialogues, clergy-exchange agreements, or “intensive partnerships” with more orthodox Protestants. Thus, at our last General Conference, a caucus group promoting “anything goes” sexual morality could expect to be taken seriously when it casually said that the “other denominations most closely related to” the UMC were not evangelical denominations within the Wesleyan theological tradition but rather rapidly shrinking, non-Methodist, liberalized denominations like the notoriously heterodox United Church of Christ (UCC).

As United Methodist denominational officials promote the “rethink church” slogan, this definitely seems like something worth rethinking.