Washington Post, 10 Aug 05

Lutherans Debate Policy on Gay Couples

By RACHEL ZOLL
The Associated Press

ORLANDO, Fla. -- In a convention meeting room filled to capacity, members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America debated what direction their denomination should take in the struggle over ordaining gays and blessing same-sex couples.

The emotional public hearing Tuesday night aimed to prepare delegates at a national assembly for a vote on the issue later this week.

The Rev. Robert Goldstein, a gay minister at Immanuel Evangelical Lutheran Church in Chicago, wore a rainbow sash around his cleric's collar as he urged delegates to "go beyond the justice of incrementalism" and remove all limits on gay leadership in the denomination.

"I'm a gay pastor in this church. I serve faithfully. I love it," he said. "Our church must go beyond institutionalizing fear."

No one at Tuesday night's hearing spoke directly against easing the denomination's prohibitions on gays, but several raised questions about the impact of changing the rules.

The Rev. Carol Custead of Hollidaysburg, Pa., said a Lutheran bishop in Kenya had told her that "ties may have to be broken" if the ELCA moved toward approving gay relationships.

"Were any of the global ramifications of this considered?" she asked.

But the Rev. Ann Tiemeyer of the New York Synod said the ELCA should not be paralyzed by the potential fallout.

"We talk about the fear, concern about lack of unity," she said, her voice cracking with emotion. "But we have to remember those we have already lost" because of the denomination's restrictions on homosexuals.

Turmoil over what the Bible says about gay sex has roiled Protestant denominations for years. The global Anglican Communion is struggling to stay together after its U.S. province, the Episcopal Church, confirmed its first openly gay bishop two years ago.

In Orlando, activists from opposing sides of the issue lined the hallway where delegates and observers entered the hearing.

Advocates for full inclusion of gays held poster-size photos of themselves with their partners or their gay children to highlight the personal stories behind the deliberations.

Members of the conservative WordAlone Network distributed thick pamphlets contending there is no basis in Scripture for gay relationships.

The key proposals before the 1,018 delegates are based on years of work by a task force on sexuality that tried to find a compromise policy for the 4.9 million-member church.

The measures would:

  • Affirm the church ban on ordaining sexually active gays and lesbians, but allow bishops and church districts called synods to seek an exception for a particular candidate if that person is in a committed relationship and meets other conditions.
  • Uphold the denomination's prohibition against blessing of same-sex unions, but give bishops and pastors discretion in deciding how to minister to gay couples.
  • Call for unity, even though congregants disagree on the issue.

Several Lutherans who stood to speak at the hearing said the proposals were unclear and they did not understand what the impact would be if the policies were approved. A vote is scheduled for Friday but could be delayed by discussion on the floor.

New England Synod Bishop Margaret Payne, who led the sexuality task force, said the ambiguity was intentional, to give discretion to local congregations.

"The reality is there are a variety of practices across the ELCA," Payne said.

Another church leader noted that fellow members of the Lutheran World Federation, which includes 138 member churches in 77 countries, also have different approaches on gay issues yet remain together.

"This is not a perfect document," said Judy Biffle of Houston, a member of a top ELCA council who worked with the task force. "It was to allow us to continue to live together ... somehow balance the tension within us ... so that we could in some manner move forward for the sake of the church."