Kansas City Star, 14 Jan 05

Church decision proves divisive

By BILL TAMMEUS

Lutheran pastors Donna Simon and Russell E. Saltzman have been waiting anxiously to see what a denomination task force on gay issues would recommend.

When the report was made public Thursday, both were disappointed, but for very different reasons.

Simon, a gay pastor in Kansas City, North, hoped for more openness toward gays and lesbians. Saltzman, a pastor in Ruskin Heights, wanted stronger rules against ordaining homosexuals.

The church has been "dishonest" in the way it has dealt with homosexual ministers because "there are gays serving in every synod," said Simon, who has been the subject of controversy in this region's synod.

By contrast, Saltzman used the same word, "dishonest," to describe bishops who have given churches that hire gay pastors "just a slap on the wrist."

Their differences represent the split not only in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America but also in several other mainline Protestant denominations struggling over how to deal with homosexuality.

The ELCA Task Force for Sexuality Studies recommended that the denomination keep its policy of not ordaining sexually active gays.

But it also proposed that the 5-million-member church not automatically discipline local congregations and bishops who don't abide by the rules. The church "may choose to refrain from disciplining those who "in good conscience" don't follow church policy, the task force said.

The recommendations came after a 14-member committee studied the issue for nearly three years and received some 28,000 questionnaires from church members. A biennial churchwide assembly in August is expected to vote on the proposals.

The ELCA has no official rite for same-sex unions, and the new recommendations say it shouldn't develop one. Church rules say that people who identify themselves as homosexual can be ordained but must remain celibate. Church rules also require all clergy not to engage in sex outside of marriage.

The task force, which could not reach unanimity on all issues, acknowledged that divisions within the church over sexual issues are "deep, pervasive, multi-faceted and multi-layered."

Simon, pastor at Abiding Peace Lutheran Church, said the recommendations are "about what we expected. All along we thought the best we were going to get was local options, which allows leeway for bishops and congregations, but without the church having to have any shift in policy. But that's what we do not want."

She said current church policies are "so dishonest. We say we're deciding whether to ordain gays and lesbians to ministry. But we're deciding whether to be honest about whether we (already) have gay pastors serving the church."

Saltzman, pastor of Ruskin Heights Lutheran Church, called it "terribly dishonest of several bishops to have purposefully ignored the current standards (against ordaining gays and lesbians) in the church by giving congregations and pastors who come out (of the closet) just a slap on the wrist."

"I see this strictly as a theological problem, and I think it entails a denial of the gospel that saves and a denial of the law that condemns."

Saltzman edited a 2003 book, Christian Sexuality: Normative and Pastoral Principles, and is the long-time editor of a national Lutheran publication, Forum Letter. He has long opposed ordaining homosexuals as clergy.

"If the church outright approves gay ordination," Saltzman said, "I would seriously consider resigning the church roster (of approved Lutheran pastors) but keeping my parish and daring the church to be as generous to me as it is being to others."

Bishop Gerald L. Mansholt of the Central States Synod said he was proud of the church for not "walking away from the issue but trying to study it with patience and love."

He noted that the top recommendation of the task force is that the church "live together faithfully in the midst of our disagreements."

"That needs to be lifted up," Mansholt said, "and that's what I intend to talk about as a bishop." (The Central States Synod covers Kansas and Missouri's 212 ELCA churches and their 68,000 members. It will send 15 voting delegates to the August assembly.) Lutherans have been worrying about whether this issue will result in a church broken asunder.

"There's a lot of concern on the part of the task force and in the church that this was going to split the church," said the Rev. James M. Brandt, who served as an advisory member of the task force that wrote the new recommendations.

Brandt, an associate professor of historical theology at St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, said he didn't think the ELCA would break up over this issue.The Rev. Brian Maas, pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church of Kansas City, said he viewed the task force's report as "an attempt to avoid this kind of split, but I think it may just be delaying it. I don't think a split is inevitable but some people may reach a point where they decide they need to be somewhere else."

Maas said he was "pleased with the tone of the report and the balanced way it tried to express a variety of opinions. It's not often you can upset extremists on both ends of a spectrum simultaneously, but I would imagine this report will manage to do so."

Brandt said "the strength of the task force report is that it tries to keep the conversation going, and its intent is to find a way for the church to remain together and remain in discernment and doing the mission we're called to do."

"The impression I came away with is the dedication on the part of the task force members and their love of the church. That was really impressive to me."

Simon was distressed that the task force "left it very muddy."

Nonetheless, "I'm not going anywhere," she said. "Others are threatening to leave (the denomination). We're (gay and lesbian clergy) threatening to stay forever."

Saltzman said it's already clear that the ELCA is "not surviving it. There will be a gradual, accelerated drift out of the ELCA. That's going on right now." He said that although the ELCA Web site lists membership at just over 5 million, it's already slipped below that and the losses are accelerating.

Although the ELCA is considered one of the more conservative mainline churches, it is viewed as more theologically liberal than the separate denomination, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.

ELCA and gay issues

The ELCA Task Force for Sexuality Studies recommended:

  • The church should "concentrate on finding ways to live together faithfully in the midst of our disagreements."
  • There should be no change in the church's policy of having no ceremony for blessing same-sex couples.
  • The church should continue its ban on ordaining sexually active gays but allow the option of not punishing local bishops who do approve such ordinations.
  • The report can be found at www.elca.org/faithfuljourney.

About the church:

  • 5 million members with headquarters in Chicago.
  • The ELCA is viewed as more theologically liberal than the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.
  • There are about 12,000 members in 31 congregations in the Kansas City area.