Los Angles Times, 14 Jan 05

Lutherans Compromise on Gays in the Clergy

By Larry B. Stammer
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Underscoring deep divisions in the nation's largest Lutheran denomination, a task force on Thursday called for retaining the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's prohibition against ordaining noncelibate homosexuals, but urged caution in disciplining congregations and clergy who ignored the ban.

At the same time, the church's Task Force for ELCA Studies on Sexuality called for no change in the denomination's practice of permitting local congregations to decide whether to bless the unions of same-sex couples.

The matter will be up to the Churchwide Assembly, the 5- million member denomination's highest legislative body, to act on the panel's recommendations in August.

Church leaders said Thursday's compromise recommendations were aimed at avoiding the divisions that came to a head last year in the worldwide Anglican Communion. In that case, the Episcopal Church ordained an openly gay priest in a committed same-sex relationship as Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire. In response, some other Anglican national churches in Africa, Southeast Asia and South America broke or downgraded their ties with the Episcopal Church, the self-governing U.S. branch of Anglicanism.

In the last year, three Evangelical Lutheran congregations, including two in Southern California, have defied church law by hiring gay and lesbian ministers in committed same-sex relationships. Two of the congregations, Hollywood Lutheran Church and Bethany Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, received letters of censure from their bishops. But a third congregation, Central City Lutheran Mission in San Bernardino, was stripped of its congregational status by the Pacifica Synod Council after hiring a lesbian minister who was in a committed same-sex relationship.

In its report, the Lutheran task force said that unity was as vital as a stand on sexual issues. "The God-given mission and communion we share is at least as important as the issues about which faithful, conscience-bound Lutherans find themselves so decisively at odds," the task force said.

The panel consulted widely with the Lutheran World Federation, the ELCA's ecumenical partners, and other Christian churches. The national task force said that after nearly four years of "painful and difficult" work, it hoped that local synods would consider a "pastoral response" instead of discipline to those who broke the church law.

"As a pastoral response to the deep divisions among us, this church may choose to refrain from disciplining those who in good conscience, and for the sake of outreach, ministry, and the commitment to continuing dialogue, call or approve partnered gay or lesbian candidates whom they believe to be otherwise in compliance [with church] expectations, and to refrain from disciplining [clergy] so approved and called," the task force recommendation said.

The task force conceded that a biblical and theological case for changing ordination standards had not been made to a majority of participants. But it said room had to be allowed for conscience.

It remained to be seen how successful the panel's approach would be if its recommendations were adopted by the Churchwide Assembly. The national church allows celibate homosexuals in the ministry.

One conservative Lutheran leader said that schism could result from a failure to take what he called a biblical stand on homosexuality. "This would mean that the ELCA has no authoritative teaching on sexual ethics and that it has no common agreement on ordination," Robert Benne, director of the Center for Religion and Society at Roanoke College in Salem, Va., said in a prepared statement.

But in an interview, Benne said an open split might have been avoided by the task force's decision to stop short of endorsing the blessing of same-sex unions and the ordination of gays and lesbians in committed relationships. "That would, indeed, split the church," Benne said.

Emily Eastwood, spokeswoman for the Lutheran Alliance for Full Participation, said the six gay and lesbian advocacy groups that make up her organization were "saddened and dismayed" by the recommendations. "We feel they perpetuate a system of selective discrimination against gay and lesbian persons in committed relationships, and those called to ministry," she said in a telephone interview from Chicago.

The recommendations were also greeted cautiously by the Rev. Daniel M. Hooper, pastor of Hollywood Lutheran Church. He said that although allowing local congregations and area synods to approve the ordination and placement of gay pastors was "somewhat helpful," he had hoped the task force would have done more to call for full inclusion of gay men and lesbians in the church's ordained clergy.

He also questioned retaining a church law that was not enforced. "We know from civil law that it's really not a good idea to have laws on the books that no one wants to enforce," Hooper said. Hooper said he had been in a committed same-sex relationship for 28 years.

The ELCA is a separate denomination from the more conservative Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod.