Minneapolis Star Tribune, 18 Aug 01

Lutherans end meeting with measured progress


Kevin Eckstrom / Religion News Service

INDIANAPOLIS -- After the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) opted for four years of study instead of any action on gay ordination, the Rev. Anita C. Hill looked crestfallen. Hill, a lesbian whose ordination ceremony in April launched a whirlwind of controversy, had hoped for more.

"Well, it's not the whole loaf," another delegate said to her. Hill paused, then responded, "When I came here, I didn't have any loaf at all."

As Lutheran delegates left the biennial Churchwide Assembly on Tuesday, many said the church had made good progress, even if it is not as much as they expected.

A new presiding bishop, the Rev. Mark Hanson of St. Paul, promised to bring "everyone to the table" to discuss differences. Hill said she might find the rest of the loaf when she sits down at that table -- even though it was Hanson who censured her church because of her ordination.

"When one is hungry, crumbs taste good, but you're still hungry," said Hill, who continues to serve at St. Paul-Reformation Lutheran Church in St. Paul, even though she is not listed on the official church roster.

On a number of issues, the 5.1 million-member ELCA made measured progress, although many wanted the church to go further. The most important business facing the 1,040 delegates included:

Rewriting a full communion pact with the Episcopal Church. Critics wanted to remove a provision that mandates the ordination of new pastors by a bishop. The church passed a compromise that allows pastors to sit in for bishops in "unusual circumstances," even though Episcopalians adamantly opposed changes to the agreement.

Electing Hanson as presiding bishop. Hanson, a moderate with progressive leanings, comes from the church's fastest-growing synod. As bishop of St. Paul, he has dealt with the most pressing issues facing the church, such as gay ordination and complaints about the Lutheran-Episcopal agreement. He promised to make mission and evangelism his top priorities.

Launching a study on homosexuality. Hill had pushed for the church to take "whatever steps are necessary" to remove the church's ban on noncelibate gay clergy. Instead, delegates asked the church to study gay issues for four years and create "a specific plan and time line" for finally resolving the issue.

Hanson promises unity

In the interim, Hanson promised to lead the church through turbulent waters and gather everyone around the same table. His supporters say Hanson is the most qualified of anyone in the church to do just that.

"This need not be a divisive issue for our church, even though it is a difficult issue," he said.

Not everyone was happy with the decision to study homosexuality for four more years.

"The liberation train has left the station, but for Lutherans it has become mired in the endless demand for study and debate," said the Rev. Jeff Johnson, a gay pastor in Berkeley, Calif., whose church was expelled from the ELCA when he was irregularly ordained like Hill.

But even critics say these four years of study may be different than past conversations because the church has allocated budget and staff to make it happen. Bishops in 65 ELCA synods, in conjunction with church colleges and seminaries, are expected to lead the study.

Many delegates said it was the best compromise the ELCA could hope for since there is no clear consensus on what should happen next. The Rev. Bill Nabers of Virginia seemed to speak for the church when he addressed the delegates.

"I start wrestling with this issue and I find myself wrestling with God," Nabers said. "So far I have not been blessed [with an answer] but I know that sometime God will give an answer. But until then, like Jacob, I will hold fast with God and wrestle with this issue."