NEWS STORY: Lutherans Maintain Policies Frowning on Same-Sex Unions, Actively Gay Clergy

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c. 2005 Religion News Service

ORLANDO, Fla. _ The nation’s largest Lutheran church on Friday (Aug. 12) rejected a move to allow actively gay clergy and upheld a 1993 policy that frowns on blessing same-sex unions.

A proposal to allow clergy in “life-long, committed and faithful same-sex relationships” to serve in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America was rejected 503-490 by voting delegates at the church’s national assembly.

But while the Lutherans largely voted to uphold the status quo, they also opened the door for pastors to provide “faithful pastoral care” to all parishioners as they see fit, which many interpreted to include gay couples.

Throughout several hours of firm but polite debate, the 1,015 voting delegates seemed to be searching for a policy that would apply across-the-board, while also carving space for local churches to exercise their ministry as they see fit.

And, by declining major change, the church reflected the unwillingness seen in most mainline Protestant churches to dramatically alter course on the divisive issue of homosexuality, even as they try to end several decades of deep division over the issue.

“The case (for major change) has not been made,” said Louis Hesse, a delegate from the church’s synod based in Spokane, Wash. “It has not been made from Scripture, it has not really been made from science, and it has not been made for the well-being of this community.”

The discussions were momentarily delayed while a group of about 100 protesters wearing rainbow-colored stoles marched into the hall and refused to leave. Delegates soon continued with their business.

The church’s policy remains:

_ Gay unions have no basis in Scripture and cannot be an “official action” of the church. Yet, at the same time, the church said it would trust local churches to “discern ways to provide faithful pastoral care” to all parishioners, which would include gay and lesbian Lutherans.

_ Gay clergy are required to be celibate, and those who are sexually active are not eligible to be hired by local churches. Delegates rejected a proposal from a sexuality task force that would have allowed non-celibate gay clergy who would have needed to seek approval from several layers of church leaders.

Delegates also approved a less controversial measure urging the 4.9 million-member church to find “ways to live together faithfully in the midst of disagreements.” That measure passed 851-127.

Advocates for gay clergy said opening pulpits to actively gay clergy would help the church tackle a growing shortage of pastors.

“We have people crying out for pastoral care,” said the Rev. G. Scott Cady of the New England Synod. “The Holy Spirit has said, `All right, here they are.’ Are we now going to say, `Thanks, Holy Spirit, but we prefer something else?”’

But the church’s conservative majority, especially strong in the Lutheran heartland of the upper Midwest, said the church cannot condone behavior that they believe is condemned in the Bible.

“Christians have always welcomed people regardless of their condition,” said delegate Elizabeth Toler of North Carolina, “but we don’t accept every kind of behavior.”

Throughout the debate, the delegates seemed to reject attempts to “micromanage” the policies of local churches, but also were uncomfortable granting the church’s official stamp of approval on same-sex relations.

“Once we decide that blessing same-sex unions is acceptable, we will step out on a slippery slope that will lead to only God knows where,” said Richard Cleary, a lay delegate from the Harrisburg, Pa.-based Lower Susquehanna Synod.

At the same time, delegates also rejected attempts to tighten the policy, such as a move to define marriage as between “a man and a woman,” or to expressly prohibit the blessing of gay unions.

(OPTIONAL TRIM FOLLOWS)

Though the church rejected attempts to liberalize gay policy, dissidents are likely to continue to challenge church law.

On Thursday night, gay groups held their own worship service at a nearby hotel, where the bishop of Detroit blessed gay clergy and the bishop of Chicago blessed gay relationships.

Many church officials conceded that the church’s quasi-official policy of allowing local churches to make these decisions _ often regardless of what the church hierarchy says _ will continue.

“I would prefer to have the definition of `pastoral care’ made by my pastors on the ground in Minneapolis, not by someone in Pennsylvania or in southwest Minnesota,” said Bishop Craig Johnson of Minneapolis.

MO/PH END ECKSTROM

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