Leaders of the 4.9-million-member Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) came to Orlando in August for their biennial Churchwide Assembly determined not to let differences on homosexuality divide them, as they have other mainline Protestant denominations.
"I do not believe for us as Lutherans, human sexuality is a church-defining or church-dividing issue," ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson said. "We can live with some ambiguity about these questions."
When the Lutherans left town after one week, the cracks were still visible, but the glue held. There was little talk of splits. Still, some conservatives worried the denomination has now given implicit support to same-sex unions.
A resolution proposed in January by a church task force urged the denomination to welcome "gay and lesbian persons into its life" and directed pastors and congregations "to discern ways to provide faithful care to same-sex couples." Despite its affirmation of a 1993 statement of the ELCA Conference of Bishops that found no biblical basis for same-sex blessings, this vaguely worded proposal was widely interpreted to allow for those very blessings.
Before the vote, conservative renewal groups, including Solid Rock Lutherans and WordAlone, spearheaded the removal of language about homosexual couples from the resolution, which then passed 670-323. However, conservative groups said the even more vaguely worded, amended resolution would allow local pastors to interpret it as they wish. Jaynan Clark Egland, head of WordAlone, said after the vote, "This assembly has propped open the door firmly" to blessing homosexual unions.
Another resolution would have ordained ministers who are part of "lifelong, committed, and faithful same-sex couples," under certain circumstances. Delegates defeated this measure by a narrow majority, thus falling well short of the two-thirds majority required for changing ELCA bylaws.
Conservatives in the denomination said more battles lie ahead for the ELCA.
"From the outside, it struck me that some sort of rough, messy 'compromise' was reached that didn't settle much of anything," said Jean Bethke Elshtain of the University of Chicago. "Certainly most people wanted to avoid something like the Episcopalian situation, with the African churches bolting." Earlier this year Elshtain joined 17 other ELCA theologians to endorse a letter that criticized a church task force for recommending that local congregations be free to bless same-sex unions.
"Sooner or later," Elshtain said, "the issue may be joined in a way that doesn't admit of a piecemeal solution."
Nearly overshadowed by the sexuality resolutions was another that authorized a new Lutheran worship book and hymnal with "gender-neutral" language. If approved by the ELCA Church Council, the new volume will be published in 2009 and will be optional for congregations. Dale Hamre, a lay delegate from South Dakota, wondered facetiously if Cole Porter's "Anything Goes" would be included in the new hymnal.
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