by Dr. Lothar Schwabe

January, 2011

photo of Dr. SchwabeHistory has well documented what happened when the Roman Catholic Church attempted to silence the voices of its conscience during the days of Martin Luther. Luther and other voices began by simply stating that their church was doing something wrong.

All churches, including their pastors and bishops, consist of sinners. Being sinners means that we at times do something wrong. We teach individual Christians to acknowledge and confess their sins and receive the absolution. What happens when the church as an organization does wrong? Where does the conscience of the church reside? The church as a human entity is a sinner as well as a saint. How does the church deal with that sinner component?

Churches do not have a good record of dealing with their conscience. As in the case of sexual abuse the first reaction seems to an attempted cover-up.

There have been occasions when a church confessed its sinfulness and failing such as the confession of guilt of the Evangelische Kirche in Germany after WWII. Such occasions are rare. Church leaders are generally more concerned about their public image than about their wrongdoings. That is very unfortunate because “what you suppress gets you” applies not only to individuals, it applies to organizations as well.

Our ELCIC is no exception when it comes to suppressing its conscience. A search for the conscience of the ELCIC leads to voices of individual members who wrote their Bishops that something was wrong. One must recognize that it takes great courage for individual church members to put into writing what their conscience dictates them to do and send it to their Church Councils and Bishops.

Seven members of Faith Lutheran Church in Kelowna, BC, Greg Broberg, Ken Campbell, Everley Lutz, Linda Lutz, Jim Muri, Dixie Schoepp, and Ted Schoepp were excommunicated (denied the sacraments and excluded from membership) in a process that violated the constitutional by-laws of their congregation. They wrote to their synodical Bishop and then to their National Bishop, but to no avail. Finally, some took their case to the Supreme Court of BC. Not all of the seven ELCIC Lutherans agreed with having their case brought before a secular judge, some felt is was just wrong to sue their church even though their church caused them great pain. But some members saw no other way to receive justice.

In the citation of “Lutz v. Faith Lutheran Church of Kelowna 2009 BCSC 59”, Docket S79003, The Honourable Mr. Justice Meiklem ordered:

  • (103) For the reasons stated, I order that the exclusion of the petitioners from membership is quashed and that the petitioners be restored as members of the respondent.
  • (104) The petitioners are awarded all costs.

Unfortunately by that time the seven as well as about thirty other members had sought membership in other churches. How sad that faithful Lutherans had to go to a secular judge to receive justice. How easy it would have been to hear voices of conscience within the ELCIC and render justice within the church. To this date, nobody in our church apologized to those seven fellow Lutherans from Kelowna, BC.

Lately, two volunteers of the Committee on Elections at the National Convention of the ELCIC in 2011 voiced their concerns in writing to their National Bishop. Their concerns dealt with the sudden dismissal of the volunteers prior to the counting of the votes dealing with same-sex issues. They did not accuse that smaller group that counted the ballots of any wrongdoing, but they were quite concerned that, at this critical point in the history in the life of the ELCIC, those who were to ensure fair dealings were excluded on somebody’s orders. At least one of the letters was dealt with at the recent meeting of the National Church Council resulting in a decision to have an internal investigation of the National Church Council. The problem with internal investigations is that the results of such investigations can be kept private within such group. The two volunteers were not completely convinced that their cases would receive a fair and open hearing and shared their letters with some friends with permission to share the information with others.

The National Office of the ELCIC responded with a statement by the National Church Council, issued on Dec. 20, 2011, stating:

  • 3. The Committee on the Conduct of Elections chose to count the yes/no ballots on their own, since it was such a simple counting process. This decision was in order.
  • 4. All of the committees of convention have a staff person assigned to them from the National Office. Assistant to the Bishop, The Rev. Carla Blakley, was assigned to assist the Committee on the Conduct of Elections. She is totally innocent of any suggestions of wrong-doing which have been circulating. These suggestions run counter to Matthew 18:15-17 and are libellous.
  • 5. All of the votes that took place at the convention were conducted in a both legal and appropriate way. We understand that some people are disappointed and even angry with the results of the vote, but the conduct of the voting and counting of ballots is not in question.

The letter concluded:

  • In the Advent spirit of hope, love, and peace,
  • National Church Council

I found it difficult to detect that spirit of peace and love. It sounded to me more as written by a lawyer than by pastors.

Simply writing off those concerns as being motivated by dissatisfaction with the outcome of the votes is not an adequate response nor is threatening with a libel suit. In my opinion both women acted as the conscience of their church. It remains to be seen how the internal investigation of the National Church Council will deal with its findings.

I wonder about the wisdom of excluding the volunteer counters at those critical votes of the National Convention. If ever we needed transparency of process and the absolute assurance of fairness in the life of the ELCIC it was at that time. We did not need to raise any questions if vested interests were willing to manipulate the outcome of those votes. Such questions are damaging to our church. We needed complete confidence in the fairness of the voting process. A lack of wisdom does not imply wrong doing but it does not instill confidence in the church in the minds those who contemplate their future as members of the ELCIC.

I also note that the statement of the National Church Council reads:

  • 3. The Committee on the Conduct of Elections chose to count the yes/no ballots on their own, since it was such a simple counting process. This decision was in order.

However, the letters issued by the two volunteers to the Committee on Elections tell a different story:

“On Saturday, two senior ladies from our committee asked Carla to explain what had happened the night before. When we gathered to count more ballots, she called us all together and "reassured" us with this reasoning:

  1. It is actually more accurate to count with less people.
  2. The Bishop was tired, and we were behind schedule. Bishop Susan asked me to do the counting as that would speed things up”.

And Eileen Block wrote:

“Soon the door opened and out came Linda Grainger followed closely by Carla Blakely, Linda stopped long enough to say “your services won’t be required for this vote, the Bishop has instructed the Elections Committee to do the count.” (The complete texts of these two letters are available upon request).

I hope that the internal inquiry of the National Church Council will determine who really made the decision to dismiss those ballot counters.

I do not wonder about the future of a church that suppresses the voices of its conscience. I know that such a church is in trouble. Our church has harsh words for those who are not good stewards of our environment and rightly so. Unless our church hears the voices of those who point to the beam in our own eye our church will contribute to its own demise. Our National Bishop courageously declared, “Truth, Reconciliation and Equity. They matter to me!” (Canada Lutheran, December 2011). It also takes great courage for our church leadership to deal with what goes wrong in our own church.

Our church needs to be thankful for the voices of its conscience. It also needs to learn to confess its wrong doings and demonstrate in practice what it preaches. I pray for my church.

"Unless I am convinced by scripture and plain reason - I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other - my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen."

Epiphany 2012

Note: Some readers may take offense at what I have written. If what I have written is false I like to be corrected () and I will respond and if proven wrong I will publicly apologize. If the reader objects because it may make “the church look bad” then my whole point has been missed.