Religion News Service, 13 Aug 05

Stance on gay unions unchanged


By Kevin Eckstrom
Religion News Service

ORLANDO, Fla. - The nation's largest Lutheran church Friday upheld a policy that frowns on blessing same-sex unions, but left the door open for pastors to provide "faithful pastoral care" to all parishioners as they see fit.

Delegates from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America voted 670-323 to uphold a 1993 statement that says gay unions have no basis in Scripture and cannot be an "official action" of the church. At the same time, the church said it would trust local churches to "discern ways to provide faithful pastoral care" to all parishioners, including gay and lesbian Lutherans.

The church also rejected a proposal that would have allowed gays in committed relationships to serve as clergy under certain conditions. The measure would have affirmed the church ban on ordaining sexually active gays and lesbians but would have allowed bishops and church districts called synods to seek an exception for a particular candidate, if that person was in a committed relationship and met other conditions. Delegates defeated that measure 503-490.

Earlier in the day, delegates voted 851-127 to keep the church unified despite serious differences over homosexuality. The 1,015 voting delegates seemed to want to maintain a church-wide policy while also creating space for local churches to exercise their own vision of ministry.

"I would prefer to have the definition of 'pastoral care' made by my pastors on the ground in Minneapolis, not by someone in Pennsylvania or in southwest Minnesota," said Bishop Craig Johnson of Minneapolis.

However, delegates stopped well short of putting the church's official stamp of approval on gay relationships.

"Once we decide that blessing same-sex unions is acceptable, we will step out on a slippery slope that will lead to only God knows where," said Richard Cleary, a lay delegate from the Harrisburg, Pa.-based Lower Susquehanna Synod.

Nevertheless, delegates also rejected attempts to tighten the policy on gays, such as a move to define marriage as between "a man and a woman," or to expressly prohibit the blessing of gay unions.

One bishop, Michael Neils of Arizona and southern Nevada, offered a policy that would have allowed clergy to bless "relationships of promise" between gay couples. That measure failed, 665-334.

Gay-rights advocates, meanwhile, contend that nothing in Christian teaching supports the current stand of the 4.9-million-member denomination. The Rev. Patrick Gahagen of Detroit spoke on the assembly floor about one of his gay congregants who was "ostracized by family, criticized by friends and demonized by the president," yet could find safe haven in church.

This Lutheran denomination has spent four years studying the issue of homosexuality, and the proposals, which came from the study task force in April, were attempts to find compromise.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is the largest American Lutheran denomination. The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod and Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, separate and more theologically conservative denominations, do not ordain homosexuals or women.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church, whose biannual meeting concludes Sunday, is one of several mainline Protestant denominations that have wrestled with the role of homosexuals in the church. Last year, the United Methodist Church upheld its prohibition on ordaining non-celibate homosexuals. The Episcopal Church sparked a crisis in the global Anglican Communion when it consecrated its first openly gay bishop. And last month, the United Church of Christ passed a resolution approving of same-sex unions. It has been blessing same-sex unions and ordaining gay clergy for years.

The Associated Press and the Chicago Tribune contributed to this report.