Mlps Star Tribune, 8 Aug 05

Lutherans turn attention to gay unions, ordination

By Bob Von Sternberg
Star Tribune

Now, it's the Lutherans' turn.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) this week wades into the thicket of human sexuality, a wrenching debate that has convulsed other Christian denominations even as it has become fodder in the nation's culture wars.

Delegates representing the 5 million members of the nation's largest Lutheran denomination will vote at the church's biennial assembly on whether to embrace same-sex unions and the ordination of sexually active gays and lesbians.

Although 1,018 voting members of the assembly, meeting in Orlando, Fla., will act on a raft of other proposals ranging from a new book of worship to church restructuring, none has generated nearly as much controversy as those dealing with sexuality.

"Faithful people on both sides of these issues disagree but have had very respectful discussions about them," said the Rev. Craig Johnson, bishop of the Minneapolis Area Synod, the denomination's largest.

Church members have been grappling with the issue of homosexuality for years, long before it crystallized politically, primarily over same-sex marriage.

That political debate, at both the state and federal level, "helps us because it gives us the knowledge that the whole nation is struggling with this," Johnson said. "It's not just us -- and [it's] not going to go away."

It's hard to overstate the centrality of the ELCA in Minnesota: Roughly one in five Minnesotans -- more than 850,000 -- belong to the denomination, second only to Roman Catholics in the state.

The Star Tribune's Minnesota Poll has found widespread opposition among the state's residents to same-sex unions and ordaining gays and lesbians.

Last spring, 52 percent of Minnesotans said they oppose same-sex legal unions, an increase of 10 percentage points since 2004. In late 2003, the poll found that 58 percent oppose the ordination of sexually active gays and lesbians; of the respondents who said they were ELCA members, 51 percent were opposed.

Three votes planned

The assembly delegates will vote on three separate sexuality recommendations, which have generated varying degrees of opposition and dispute.

By far the least controversial resolution is the one that sometimes has been characterized as simply allowing members to agree to disagree on homosexuality and the role of gays and lesbians in the church.

It urges members of the ELCA and its institutions to "concentrate on finding ways to live together faithfully in the midst of disagreements, recognizing the God-given mission and communion that we share as members of the body of Christ."

Somewhat more controversial is a proposal that would make possible same-sex blessing ceremonies but stop short of creating such a churchwide policy. It would also close the door on same-sex marriages, reaffirming the church's position that marriage is "a lifelong covenant of faithfulness between a man and a woman."

Instead, it formally welcomes gays and lesbians (as the ELCA has since 1991), leaving it to "pastors and congregations to discern ways to provide faithful pastoral care to same-sex couples."

"That's basically what we've been living with for the past 15 years, a sense that we trust local pastors to make decisions," Johnson said.

By far the most controversial provision would open the door to the ordination of gays and lesbians who are not celibate, as the ELCA now requires.

A congregation could seek exception for candidates who are "in life-long, committed and faithful same-sex relationships." Such a pastoral call would need the approval of the bishop, the synod council and the church's conference of bishops.

"It's messy, which reflects the fact that there's no unanimity on this one," said the Rev. Peter Strommen, the bishop of the Northern Minnesota Synod, who was a member of the church's sexuality task force that developed the initial recommendations on the treatment of gays and lesbians. "Suppose a congregation decides to call a gay man in a committed relationship [to be its pastor] and the bishop doesn't think it's a good idea. That won't go anywhere. But all of the synods are very different."

And acceptance or rejection of the ordination of sexually active gays and lesbians is hardly universal churchwide, Strommen said.

The Twin Cities is one region where such ordinations have gained a foothold, with a handful of congregations calling sexually active gays and lesbians. Under current church policy, those congregations can be censured by a local bishop.

"I hope the ban can be lifted ultimately, but I can't tell you yet how I think it's going to go," said the Rev. Jay Wiesner, a gay pastor in a committed relationship who was called last year by Bethany Lutheran Church in south Minneapolis. "I don't think anyone does."

Johnson and Strommen said the resolution on ordination faces an uphill battle because as a formal amendment to the church's bylaws, it will require approval of two-thirds of the assembly's voting members.

"That's a mountain to climb," said Johnson. He said he supports all three resolutions, one of the few among the church's 65 local bishops who has said how he will vote.

The head of the church, Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson, has declined to say. In late July, Hanson, former bishop of the St. Paul Synod, said he hoped the church would not splinter, regardless of the outcome of the debate.

Of the expected intense deliberations, Hanson said he hoped "we will not take the tensions they create as evidence of a divided church but as a sign that a church is struggling with what it means to be centered in Christ."

'One set of rules'

Members of Goodsoil, a Lutheran gay and lesbian advocacy group pushing for the changes, "aren't going anywhere, no matter what happens," said spokesman Phil Soucy. "We're still going to be Lutherans and we're going to be in the pews. All we're saying is have one set of rules for everyone -- not two."

Leaders of two groups opposing the changes, the Twin Cities-based Solid Rock Lutherans and the WordAlone Network say they believe the ordination resolution will fail.

"I just think there is not a spirit in the church to change the rules of ordination," said the Rev. Roy Harrisville, executive director of the Solid Rock Lutherans. "I just don't know whether people might [leave the ELCA] until we see what happens."

Added the Rev. Mark Chavez, who heads WordAlone, approval of the resolutions "amounts to a slippery slope. Ultimately, the goal is more than ordination. It's slippery and deceptive."

Strommen said he doesn't expect the ultimate decision to spur mass defections.

No unanimity

Lutherans are by no means of a single mind about sexuality issues, he said. "When you talk to African or Asian members, they're appalled by this," he said. "They just ask where's that in the Bible?"

But the Protestant Church in the Netherlands, a merger of Lutheran and Reformed churches, allows blessings for gay couples.

With this vote, ELCA is following in the footsteps of the Episcopal Church and the United Church of Christ.

The experiences of those denominations have been polar opposites. Since the Episcopal church appointed its first gay bishop and approved a option for same-sex unions two years ago, bitter fallout has continued to shake the denomination.

The UCC, one of the most liberal mainline denominations in the United States, has encountered little dissension since its decision last month to support civil marriage for gays and lesbians, the first mainline church to take such a step.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.