Magazine article The Christian Century

Lutherans to Address Issues of Homosexuality

Magazine article The Christian Century

Lutherans to Address Issues of Homosexuality

Article excerpt

AFTER NEARLY four years--some say 15 years--of discussion the largest U.S. Lutheran denomination will soon hear if it has some practical and moral wisdom for dealing with homosexual issues that have divided other mainline church bodies for decades.

The biennial Churchwide Assembly of the 5-million-member Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is expected to decide this summer in Orlando whether to ordain ministers who are in committed homosexual relationships and whether to write a union blessing for gay or lesbian partners.

But first, an ELCA sexuality studies task force formed in 2001 will announce January 13 at church headquarters in Chicago whether it will recommend dramatic changes or definitive prohibitions--or, more likely, an approach somewhere in between. Current policy calls on clergy, to refrain from all sexual relations outside marriage, which is defined as a covenant between a man and a woman. Same-gender blessings have not been addressed officially, although the ELCA Conference of Bishops, an advisory body, said in 1993 that it did not approve of such rites.

Following the 14-member task force's final meeting two weekends before Christmas, New England Bishop Margaret G. Payne, who is chair of the group, did not indicate what directions it would take. She and James M. Childs Jr., director of the ELCA Studies on Sexuality, described only the struggle the members had with their divergent views. "We are committed to making an honest report," said Childs.

Gay advocacy groups within Lutheranism were not optimistic that any substantial changes will be proposed. Spokespersons were dismayed by the mid-November vote of the ELCA Church Council, the top legislative authority between churchwide assemblies, that any amendment to church laws or any vote to alter policies at the August 8-14 convention should require a two-thirds majority to pass.

During the council's debate, ELCA Secretary Lowell G. Almen noted that rules proposed by the council "are subject to amendment by the churchwide assembly," the ELCA News Service reported. But to gay activists, the high-level decision appeared to aid those favoring the status quo.

"It would be hard enough to get a simple majority" on ordaining gay pastors and approving same-sex rites, said Greg Egertson of San Francisco, cochair of Lutheran Lesbian & Gay Ministries. "The battle may already have been lost." Emily Eastwood, executive director of the St. Paul-based Lutherans Concerned/North America (LC/NA), said her organization was "surprised and saddened by the timing and nature of this preemptive maneuver."

In addition, the activists criticized the removal of a mission church in San Bernardino, California, from the ELCA roster of congregations and the placing of its senior pastor on leave of absence after the Central City Lutheran Mission installed an openly lesbian minister as an associate pastor in April. In contrast to that disciplinary action by the Pacifica Synod headed by Bishop Murray D. Finck, two other congregations that called gay or lesbian pastors last year received only letters of censure from their synod councils.

"Many congregations, pastors and people in our synod have indicated they stand behind the [synod] council's difficult decision," Finck told ELCA News Service. …

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