Clarification from Bishop Miller Concerning the ELCA as a “Sanctuary Church Body”

On August 5 – 10, the ELCA held its Church wide Assembly in Milwaukee, WI. The Assembly meets every three years. It is the highest decision-making body in the ELCA and is akin to a council. It is made up of voting members elected by each of the ELCA’s 65 Synods. A complete list of the duties of the

ELCA Church wide Assembly can be found on the
ELCA’s website at:

One of the recommendations and resolutions decided upon by this year’s assembly one has made the national news media. It is a resolution approved overwhelmingly that declares the ELCA to a “Sanctuary Church Body.” This resolution has created significant controversy as a result of news coverage.

I am forwarding to you a communication that Bishop Wayne Miller sent out in response to the controversy. I encourage you to read it. I welcome conversation with any of you who may have questions or concerns about statement. PK

Clarification from Bishop Miller Concerning the ELCA as a “Sanctuary Church Body”

As many of you know, last week the Church wide Assembly of the ELCA passed an amended resolution which, among other things, declared the ELCA to be a “Sanctuary Church Body.”

This is a highly ambiguous self-designation which is proving to be encouraging for some, disturbing for others, and confusing for almost everyone. Included here are two documents which I hope will be
helpful. The first is a set of “talking points” generated within the ELCA, attempting to explain what we mean when we use the word “sanctuary.” The second is an essay published by the ACLU, which I sent to the roster two years ago, to help clarify the legal implications of declaring oneself to be a place of sanctuary.

As you review these documents, I would like to offer a few interpretive remarks

that may help you in communicating this decision to members of your congregation:

The self-declaration of the ELCA as a “sanctuary church body” is, in its effect, a symbolic declaration. It is the emphatic assertion of a long-held value in North American Lutheranism; namely, that churches should be places of welcome, care, compassion, and healing for all people regardless of their race, nationality, age, gender, or place of origin. Historically, we ourselves are an immigrant church, and we believe in the virtue and obligation of sharing with others the hospitality we have received. We continue to advocate for the humane treatment of families and, particularly, vulnerable children, as reflected in the ELCA AMMPARO initiative. None of this is

new. This is who we are and who we have always been as a church body.

“Sanctuary” is a term that means different things to different people. For some it is an ethical stance of hospitality–for others it is a legal category that involves the civil disobedience of refusing to comply with what is believed to be an unjust law, and then enduring the legal consequences for that disobedience. The ELCA decision clearly and unequivocally falls into the first understanding of “sanctuary.” We mean it as an ethical position, not as a legal category, or as a prescription for breaking the law.

In ELCA constitutional polity, congregations, synods, and the churchwide organization are all independently incorporated entities with discreet boards of directors (councils), who carry fiduciary responsibility for that corporation only. Simply put, neither the ELCA Churchwide Organization nor the Metropolitan Chicago Synod has standing or authority to impose mandatory policies and practices for another expression of this church. We can only require that synods and congregations operate from approved ELCA constitutions. Congregations are categorically NOT bound to change anything in their attitudes or their behaviors as a result of this

declaration. It is a congregational decision.

Because of the values implied or stated by this resolution, I whole-heartedly recommend that congregations use this action by the Churchwide Assembly as an invitation for your congregation to enter a time of prayer, study, conversation, and discernment about what Holy Scripture and Lutheran tradition have taught concerning hospitality to strangers, and the proper Christian response to how the church takes part in

society. Regardless of whether or not this leads you to assume a public

role as a “sanctuary congregation,” the time of study and discernment will enrich your spiritual growth as a child of God and as a disciple of Jesus Christ.

We live in a time when both the news establishment and social media thrive on raising public anxiety to the highest possible level and then using that anxiety to manipulate our behavior. I am hopeful that our congregations will be able to resist these forces of manipulation and come to fair, thoughtful, and faithful decisions about how the Spirit is calling us forward in this challenging season.

In Christ, Bishop Wayne N. Miller— Metropolitan Chicago Synod, ELCA

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