Bismark (N.D.) Tribune, 28 Jul 05

Looking at critical issues

By KAREN HERZOG, Bismarck Tribune

As expected, nearly every question pointed at the Rev. Mark Hanson from journalists around the nation during a Tuesday conference call had to do with sexuality.

Hanson, presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, fielded questions about the human sexuality votes that are on the agenda Aug. 8-14 in Orlando, Fla., when delegates of the ELCA gather for the body's Churchwide Assembly.

Although the delegates will vote on a number of issues, including a new structure for the 6-million-member church, new worship materials, interim eucharistic sharing with the United Methodist Church and strategies for mission outreach with people of African descent and Arab and Middle Eastern heritage, the issue of the sexuality votes holds center stage, as it has in nationwide gatherings of other Protestant bodies in the past few years. Three recommendations created by a task force for ELCA Studies on Sexuality will be considered:

  • That the ELCA find ways to "live together faithfully in the midst of disagreement," about this issue.
  • That the church respect the 1993 Conference of Bishops statement opposing same-sex blessings, while at the same time welcoming gay and lesbian people into the life of the church and giving them pastoral care.
  • Delegates will be asked to decide if a process can be created to allow a synod bishop to create an exception to the ELCA's ordination standards, by which a gay or lesbian clergyperson in a lifelong committed relationship can be ordained or retained on the roster.

Hanson refused to predict the outcomes of these votes.

He said he would, however, "be bold enough to predict that the conversation (around this issue) will continue in the tone" of prayerful and thoughtful concern.

When one part of the Body of Christ (a biblical symbol of the Christian church) suffers, "we all suffer together," Hanson said.

"There is a deep concern for the woundedness of the Body of Christ and for the woundedness of gay and lesbian people in their lives," he said. "We take those experiences of woundedness to God in prayer, bring it to the table of Holy Communion."

The votes in Orlando will signal to what degree those in the middle of the continuum of sexuality viewpoints can "call the two ends to consensus," he said.

"In the last six months, I see a turning," Hanson said. He sees people not wishing to be defined only by "wedge issues," including sexuality, but a growing convergence of interest around issues such as hunger, poverty and the environment.

Interest around those pressing human needs is a hopeful sign, he said, "not just about our life together, but for the world."

Tension is not the sign of a divided church, Hanson said, but of one that can live with ambiguity and diversity.

"I don't look to a tension-free church as a mark of a vital and healthy church in mission," he said. "To be followers of Jesus and descendents of the early church means there will always be tension."

Jesus created tension wherever he went, Hanson said, "by virtue of those he challenged, those he associated with, those he touched, those to whom he spoke of forgiveness, and those he healed."

In the early church, tension was a reality as the small band of followers of Jesus grew and dealt with diversity and questions, such as "who is welcome among us and on what terms?"

What he sees is not a "tension-free ELCA," but a discernment as to whether those tensions are for the sake of the gospel, he said.