ELCA Says No to Gay Pastors, Blessings

By Dart, John | The Christian Century, September 6, 2005 | Go to article overview

ELCA Says No to Gay Pastors, Blessings


Dart, John, The Christian Century


ON THE FACE of it, the nation's largest Lutheran church didn't budge on issues of homosexuality. Though aware that some same-sex couples receive blessings from pastors and that some openly gay or lesbian pastors are ordained, delegates to the biennial assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, held in Orlando, declined to authorize either practice, even on a provisional basis.

The leadership of the church had proposed a lenient approach on these issues to the 1,015 delegates at the August 8-14 Churchwide Assembly, meeting a few miles from Florida's Disney World. Too few delegates agreed, so the status quo prevails in the 4.9-million-member denomination.

Yet advocates of change saw both momentum and time on their side, and were relieved that delegates rejected taking stricter stances on homosexuality. There were also indications that irregular same-sex blessings were likely to continue.

Presiding Bishop Mark S. Hanson for more than a year emphasized that a church that struggles with social-moral divisions is not necessarily a "struggling" church. Dealing openly with tensions is the mark of a vibrant church, he said. (Hanson himself took a neutral stance on the gay-lesbian issues before and during the assembly inasmuch as he was the full-time moderator of the convention's business.)

A special task force on sexuality, which reported its findings in January, called (1) for "living faithfully in the midst of disagreements" without jeopardizing church unity. That proposal won handily in Orlando.

The more detailed task force recommendations were (2) to follow the 1993 advice of bishops by not conducting church blessings for gay or lesbian unions even while welcoming gays and lesbians and extending pastoral care to them, and (3) to withhold, for the sake of outreach, disciplinary actions against congregations that employ openly homosexual pastors.

The ELCA Church Council, the denomination's board of directors, was willing to allow delegates to decide whether "pastoral care" might embrace a form of gay blessings. The council also recast the third recommendation by proposing that ordinations of gay and lesbian ministers be allowed as "exceptions" for the sake of ministry outreach.

Delegates, voting August 12, changed the second recommendation so as to ask pastors and congregations to provide faithful pastoral care to "all to whom they minister," rather than "to same-sex couples." That proposal, as amended, passed 670 to 323. The vote to allow gay and lesbian pastors fell far short of the two-thirds majority required for a policy change--490 yes votes to 503 no votes.

ELCA officials later that day were asked at a news conference if it was pointless to propose changes destined to be defeated. No, said Roy Riley, the New Jersey bishop who chairs the ELCA Conference of Bishops.

"What impressed me today is how right the task force was," said Riley. Its members "heard out in the church that there was a significant minority that wanted some space, some flexibility to perhaps move in a different direction in terms of ordination," he said. "And when it finally came down to that recommendation--well, we pretty much knew that it wasn't going to get two-thirds--almost 50 percent of persons voted for that."

Hanson conceded that allowing seminary-educated gays and lesbians in committed same-sex relationships to be admitted officially as pastors "was a change that was asking too much. …

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