Minneapolis Star-Tribune, August 19, 2005

Op-Ed: ELCA gives gays, lesbians second-class status

by David R. Weiss

"We're going to Orlando to be the body of Christ," proclaimed Bishop Mark Hanson last month, urging the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America to be the church at its best.

With the 2005 ELCA Assembly over, it seems we went there to wound the body of Christ instead.

Four times since its inception in 1988 the ELCA has resolved to welcome gay and lesbian people into the life of the church (1991, 1995, 1999, 2005). Yet that welcome has always included an asterisk.

In the words of the assembly's baptismal theme, homosexuals are indeed "marked with the cross of Christ forever" -- but no matter the integrity of their faith or life, their sexuality somehow marks them more deeply than does the cross of Christ. Spoken aloud, that claim would be heresy; in practice, however, it passes for good church policy.

I was in Orlando with Goodsoil, the alliance of Lutheran groups pressing for full participation for gays and lesbians. While the week left many of us ultimately empowered, it was a painful journey.

As our lives hung in the balance of assembly deliberation, no prayer, responsive reading or sermon ever spoke the words gay or lesbian -- not in any of the seven assembly worship services. Liturgy, song and sermon abounded with justice; Sunday's final worship texts highlighted God's welcome to people long considered outcast. But the absence of our names invited anyone who wished to imagine us still outside that welcome, not included in that justice.

Avoiding any appearance of "politicizing worship" by praying for the very people it claims to welcome, the church instead politicized worship by abandoning them in the sanctuary while debating them in the plenary.

Assembly members voted overwhelmingly to continue in a "unity" that is spiritually violent, even toxic to many gays and lesbians. Like a dysfunctional family that denies the abuse that distorts it, we voted to stay together for more of the same.

In contrast, the assembly was pointedly ambiguous about whether gay and lesbian relationships might receive the church's blessing. After multiple amendments failed either to specifically ban or to endorse such blessings, the ELCA affirmed an intentionally ambiguous promise of "pastoral care" to these persons it claims unambiguously to "welcome into its life."

Finally, the assembly defeated a resolution to create a separate process of ordination for gay and lesbian people in committed relationships. Hailed by some as a step forward, a gracious gesture of compromise, it offered a "two-door" ordination process -- with one door marked "queers use this entrance."

Under the guise of progress, it would have, in effect, established a Jim Crow law within the church, undoubtedly delaying full justice for much longer.

When nothing except second-class citizenship remained on the floor for consideration, 100 members of Goodsoil moved themselves -- peacefully, respectfully -- onto the voting floor for consideration as well. Though silent, we were quite visible, and the assembly's agitation at our presence was palpable. Some called us "intimidating."

Imagine 100 African-Americans taking the floor during an all white assembly in the '60s; no matter how peaceful their demeanor, they would've been found intimidating for the same reasons we were. We embodied the "other" that many in the assembly hall feared. And we embodied it in the very moment that they wanted us to be patently invisible so they could discuss our fate without seeing our eyes.

I hear that our full welcome is "only a matter of time" and that we actually hurt our own cause by "disrupting" the assembly. This charge fails to hold in the balance the countless depressions, shattered families, collapsed relationships, lost faiths and suicides by which this church has disrupted our lives -- and has wounded the body of Christ, the wholeness of the church itself.

To stand silently in the visitors' section as the church again proclaimed welcome while inflicting wounds would have been to deny Jesus as truly as Peter denied him by the campfire (Matt. 26:69).

"Surely, you, too, were with him, for I see the mark of Christ on your forehead."

And for us, in that moment, there was no other choice but to say, "Yes," with all our hearts -- and with all our feet moving from the margins of this church to the center. From now on this conversation is not about us. It is us. We, too, are the body of Christ.

David R. Weiss, St. Paul, a lifelong Lutheran, was a registered visitor at the ELCA Churchwide Assembly in Orlando.