To: Friends, Members and Congregations of the Oregon Synod, ELCA
Re: Freedom to Marry in Oregon
Dear Sisters and Brothers in Christ,
This past Saturday, May 17, 2014, Voting Members of our Oregon Synod Assembly overwhelming affirmed “the freedom to marry for same-gender couples in Oregon.” This afternoon Federal Judge Michael McShane held the 2004 Oregon State Amendment preventing same-gender couples from being married to be unconstitutional. All loving couples and families deserve the same respect and civil rights. Now, in Oregon, we have taken one more step to help assure these rights. Thanks be to God!
People have already started to ask me what this means for our congregations in Oregon. This is a good question, and experience in other synods suggests that a word from the bishop is helpful in such circumstances. So, let me share some thoughts here. A fuller conversation will undoubtedly unfold in the coming months.
The last ELCA Social Statement which speaks to marriage was passed in 2009. It is entitled Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust. It is available online at www.elca.org/socialstatements
Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust recognizes that not all in the ELCA are of one mind on the question of same-gender marriage. Our commitment to one another is to be respectful of various perspectives, and accepting of differing practices. A Churchwide Assembly decision around same-gender relationships made in 2009 also decided that the question of recognition and support of same-gender couples should be made by the local congregation, not bishops or Assemblies. You get to decide what to do, and the question is ministry. How do we most faithfully attend to the ministry we are given in our own local contexts?
Here is what I advise:
1. You already have a ministry of marriage in your congregation. Most congregations leave the decision of who to marry up to the pastor. You may have a wedding coordinator, guidelines for pre-marital counseling, rules about photography or music appropriate for wedding ceremonies, etc. I don’t know that any of this needs to change, but I encourage you as pastors and councils to review your practice.
2. Your congregation as a whole may be clear about whether you do, or do not, wish to solemnize marriages of same-gender couples. Personally I hope this is a ministry you will offer for any number of reasons. However, this is a decision your congregation is called to make. Know that all of us in the Oregon Synod will respect your decision on this matter – whether you choose to marry same-gender couples or not.
3. I trust pastors and councils to discern this ministry for their congregations. Not everybody in your congregation needs be of a single mind. If broader discussion seems helpful, by all means find a way to facilitate it. We do have people in the synod who would be glad to participate in this conversation with you if you wish. Just ask. Most congregations entrust decisions around who to marry, or not, to their pastor. If this has been your pattern I encourage you to continue in this way until, or unless, you decide otherwise.
My experience with congregations that have offered same-gender rites of blessing or marriage has been that both the couple and the congregation have felt deeply blessed. If there were friends or members of these congregations who had reservations they either did not attend, or simply chose to respect the decision of others in the congregation. I appreciate the maturity of all involved.
I have been asked about wedding services, rites or best practices for same-gender couples. We Lutherans do not have official “rites” in the same sense that Catholics or Episcopalians do. What Lutherans have is resources. If your congregation has the opportunity to marry a same-gender couple I encourage you to simply adapt the language in any traditional wedding service to fit the need. Pastors generally do this anyway. My practice was always to walk thought he wedding service with a couple during a pre-marital counseling session. Pastors often talk about why the service is constructed the way it is, what it means to offer an invocation, what is appropriate in creating marriage vows, and what changes or options might make the service more meaningful. I see no reason why this should be different for same-gender couples. If you wish to talk to other congregations, or pastors, who offer this ministry call the synod office and we will be glad to offer you a referral. In the months to come further resources will be added to www.oregonsynod.org/freedom-marry
For now, let me simply say again that we in Oregon will undoubtedly be making different decisions around this opportunity. I give thanks for being part of a church that has chosen to recognize and respect a diversity of practice. Some congregations will be offering same-gender marriage services and some will not. The decision is yours to make. Some will be glad to allow their pastors to use their own judgment in this matter, and some may choose to have broader, congregational conversations. As your bishop I wish to help you find your voice and offer the ministry you feel called to.
May God walk with us all in new times and opportunities!
Bishop Dave Brauer-Rieke
Oregon Synod - ELCA