The news of the recent installation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s first transgender bishop has been leading me to wonder what makes a culture Lutheran and what impact Lutherans have on the cultures of the countries they live in.
Here’s the context. For the past week, I’ve been traveling about Iceland and Greenland, two countries where the Lutheran Church put down roots centuries ago as the national church. In fact, 2021 marks the 300th year of Christianity being introduced to Greenland via the Danish missionary Hans Egede.
Oddly, Greenland chose not to celebrate the anniversary in July, which is when Egede came in 1721.
Iceland has notorious rates of church non-attendance — in one of the world’s seven officially Lutheran countries, Iceland’s adherence rate may be the lowest at 10 percent. (One of the fastest-growing groups in that Nordic country are the pagans, a phenomenon about which I’ll be reporting on next week for my new gig at Newsweek).
I am no expert on religion in Greenland, but I do know this inaccurate piece put out in 2019 by the World Council of Churches is quite wrong in saying there’s only two churches in Nuuk, the country’s capital. Maybe there are only two Lutheran churches, but I stumbled upon a very lively Pentecostal assembly in the center of town during the Sunday morning I was there.
Which brings me to there being a Lutheran culture in these two countries, church attendance rates notwithstanding. There is a prominent church in the center of each Greenlandic town of any size. Confirmation day remains a big deal for teen-agers there. The Icelanders have made their futuristic looking churches a matter of national pride, whether or not people go inside them and even though some media call the church “irrelevant.”
And being that Greenland has some of the world’s highest suicide rates, does that make the church there is “irrelevant” as well? Hard to say. But these are countries where Lutheranism is part of the air they breathe.
Here in the USA, the ELCA is slated for statistical oblivion by the 2040s. No joke, read about it here. In view of how many of the world’s growing denominations are the ones that trend conservative, the denomination’s 2009 vote to allow same-sex marriages among its clergy and, now, non-gender-specific bishops is rather symbolic. Lutheran conservatives would call it a death wish.
No surprise, but the coverage I read, such as this Associated Press story, didn’t mention the denomination’s rapid decline and how a transgender bishop — even in San Francisco — might affect this downward spiral. But I think it’s a question worth bringing up. The statistics are stark, as tmatt noted in this earlier GetReligion podcast and post:
Rohrer has been elected bishop of the ELCA’s Sierra Pacific region, which had 183 congregations in 2012 and 181 in 2019. However, “active participants” in those congregations fell from 32,445 to 25,043 in that same period and attendance dropped from 17,769 to 12,931. All of the churches, combined, in this new bishop’s home region have the combined attendance of a single evangelical megachurch (looking at the numbers for the top 20 congregations).
Do some additional math: The average ELCA congregation in this very liberal (and massive, in terms of population) region has about 70 people attending on a given Sunday. If you know the realities of church life, you know that it takes about 85-100 people attending and giving to comfortably fund the salary and benefits for a mainline minister. Bishop-elect Rohrer faces a challenge.
I checked the coverage in sojo.net (formerly known as Sojourners), the San Francisco Chronicle , and even this Insider.com piece which, even though it talks a lot more about transgender clergy, doesn’t really ask any deep questions.
Questions like: Will Rohrer’s presence in the episcopate increase the odds that this denomination will grow or shrink? Or make absolutely no difference at all? Something has caused all those folks to leave the ELCA in recent decades and it might be nice to know what.
This BBC feature was the only report that I found in which the interviewer outright asked Rohrer (who is trans/queer/gender fluid, with plural pronouns) in this consecration would drive people out of the church. Rohrer answered that the Lutheran church was trying to decrease gender violence and although, “I haven’t seen too many people who are upset about it, but when they are, I just eat with them and we find that we all love Jesus the same and maybe we can all focus and agree on that.”
This reporter followed up Rohrer’s bland response with a more pointed question about how the bishop responds to opponents. He got Rohrer to admit to wearing a bullet-proof vest during the installation ceremony because “the climate of hate is just beyond words, right?”
At the end, Rohrer added, “if you haven’t found the church that is able and wiling to welcome you, the Lutherans will have you.”
So the message here is not that this is the church that Martin Luther once founded; instead it’s a modern church that embraces the doctrines of the Sexual Revolution?
The ELCA is trying other out-of-the-box methods as well, such as naming a celeb pastor, the Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber, as the denomination’s first “pastor of public witness” as detailed in this RNS story. One difference with Bolz-Weber: She actively engages with the claims of Lutheran theology whereas I got little impression, from the scant coverage, that Rohrer is doing that. Only this earlier RNS story came close to dealing with questions of that kind.
If Rohrer needed to wear a bullet-proof vest to the ceremony, then obviously some people out there were opposing this election. Were there any efforts to find these people, much less interview them? Or are we only going to have your basic cheerleading articles?
Had the shoe been on the other foot and Rohrer been a hard-core conservative, you can well bet that the opposing POV would — with good cause — have been reported front and center. Why not take the same journalistic approach here?
IMAGES: Drawn from the Twitter account and the website of the Sierra Pacific Synod of the ELCA.