Associated Press, 13 Aug 2001

Lutherans to Study Homosexuality

By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Filed at 1:27 p.m. ET

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) -- The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America decided Monday to undertake its first major study on whether to endorse the morality of homosexual relationships.

The church's national assembly was also to vote later on a separate proposal to start the process of repealing the church's ban on actively homosexual clergy.

The new study will involve the Chicago headquarters staff, the church's bishops, its 65 synods -- or regional units -- and colleges and seminaries. The 5.1 million-member denomination will also conduct open hearings and local focus groups on the issue.

An interim report with possible recommendations is due in 2003 and the final report in 2005.

The Rev. Ronald Rude of Denver said theologians are divided on homosexuality so Lutherans must ask ``does the Gospel override the Bible'' in this case. The church had previously concluded it did regarding other issues such as slavery, women's role in the church and divorce, he said.

The Rev. Kim Lengert of Reading, Pa., told of a homosexual couple that asked her for a church blessing ritual. ``We are about to deny the crumbs from the table. We have a part of our congregations that is starving spiritually,'' she said.

A coalition of five pro-gay Lutheran caucuses and the activist group Soulforce of Laguna Beach, Calif., which organizes demonstrations at religious meetings, had dozens of protesters standing in vigil outside the meeting hall with ``Stop Spiritual Violence'' signs.

The coalition said there would be ``possible civil disobedience'' Monday to protest the continuing gay clergy ban.

The motion to lift the clergy ban was made by Anita Hill of St. Paul, Minn., a lesbian living with a partner who was ordained as a pastor this year by one active and three retired bishops in defiance of church rules. She is not related to the Anita Hill who accused Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment.

Hill's congregation was censured -- but not expelled -- by Bishop Mark S. Hanson of St. Paul, who was elected Saturday as the denomination's new presiding bishop, making him leader of the church, the fifth-largest U.S. Protestant denomination.

For technical reasons having to do with the church's governance, the gay clergy ban can't be completely repealed in a single vote. Rather, the national assembly can only start the process of repealing the ban.

When the gay clergy debate began Saturday, retired Presiding Bishop Herbert Chilstrom of Pelican Rapids, Minn., said he had changed his mind and wanted the church to accept homosexual relationships.

It was under Chilstrom's leadership that the church council set the clergy ban and the bishops' conference advised congregations against blessings for same-sex couples.