Chicago Tribune, 13 Jan 05

Lutheran report on gays suggests few changes to current policies

Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO - (KRT) - Both gay rights advocates and Lutheran conservatives panned a long-awaited sexuality report released by the nation's largest Lutheran denomination on Thursday, saying it showed no signs of progress in the discussion about same-sex unions and gay clergy.

During a study process launched in 2001 by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, scientists, theologians, gay and lesbian Lutherans and congregations weighed in on whether to alter the denomination's policies. The report from a 14-member task force leaves those policies largely untouched.

The task force did not propose that sanctions be created for individual churches that bless same-sex partnerships. But it also did not suggest rewriting a non-binding statement from more than a decade ago in which bishops condemned such ceremonies.

The report did not suggest lifting the celibacy rules imposed on gay clergy, a change that Chicago Bishop Paul Landahl had hoped to see.

"My first reaction is one of disappointment," said Landahl, who does not enforce the celibacy requirement in the Metropolitan Chicago Synod. "Those of us who wanted to see the church open more to the realities of life ... I was hoping to see some movement and I didn't."

The report did recommend allowing bishops such as Landahl to choose not to punish congregations that ordain non-celibate gays and lesbians, as long as those congregations had discussed it beforehand with local church leaders.

Leaders of the 5 million-member Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which is headquartered in Chicago, will draft resolutions based on the report and vote on them in August at an assembly in Orlando.

The ELCA, formed in 1988, is separate from the smaller Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, both of which do not ordain women, gays or lesbians and are not discussing it.

Reflecting an overriding fear of a split similar to the one threatening the Episcopal Church after it consecrated its first openly gay bishop, the ELCA report asked the church "to concentrate on finding ways to live together faithfully in the midst of disagreement."

"Unless people really want to work together, then the votes on the two recommendations will just be a battle with winners and losers," said New England Bishop Margaret Payne, who chaired the task force. "But if there is a precondition that we want to work together, there can still be deep disagreement but a spirit of willingness to work together. If people take that seriously ... we hope that will create a different spirit."

While Payne said the document released Thursday was intended to be pastoral in tone, Bishop Gerard Knoche of Baltimore said it should have proposed a clear policy that could be enforced. He said leaving the door open to non-celibate gay clergy at the discretion of local leaders would be "a disaster."

"One of the great gifts we have preserved with great difficulty is common standards for clergy so that we can have national mobility and we can all feel confident that we have agreed on the criteria," he said. "Our church is not ready for change. I'm not convinced there is a biblical warrant for change. I am not convinced by the arguments that say homosexuality is not a sinful lifestyle."

But Emily Eastwood, executive director of Lutherans Concerned/North America and spokeswoman for Lutheran Alliance for Full Participation, a coalition of Lutheran gay rights groups, said she was "deeply saddened and dismayed." She postponed plans to become a Lutheran pastor when she was "outed" during her first year at seminary.

She called the report a step back, saying it "institutionalizes selective discrimination against gay and lesbian people."

The Rev. Brian Hiortdahl, pastor of Resurrection Lutheran Church in the Lakeview neighborhood, said the report reflected an impasse on the task force and in the church as a whole. Hiortdahl blessed the union of a lesbian couple in June.

"People who traditionally and historically have been rejected and condemned by the church, this doesn't really help us reach out to them and invite them back or invite them forward for the first time," he said. "It's a minimal half-shuffle forward. It's forward but not very far."