National Lutheran News

Sexuality task force studying responses

Church leaders hope they can avoid a church-dividing vote in the ELCA in 2005

When voting members gather in Or-lando, Florida, in August 2005, for the Churchwide Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), they’ll be greeted with more than church leaders. A significant contingent from the religion and secular media are expected as well.

The media’s interest, along with that of most in the almost 5 million member ELCA, will be focused on a recommendation which has yet to be drafted.

A report with recommendations, concerning whether the ELCA should approve blessings for same-sex partners and ordination for those living in committed relationships with same-sex partners, is being hammered out by the denomination’s task force for the studies of sexuality. The group met in Chicago October 1-3 and began sifting and sorting what it’s heard from congregations, synods and bishops since last May.

The task force hopes to finish its written recommendations for the church by mid-December, according to the Rev. Margaret G. Payne. She’s bishop of the New England Synod and chair of the 14-member group.

The task force has been engaged in conversation, study and listening to people from a variety of disciplines, including theologians and biblical scholars, Payne told the ELCA News Service. It has also been reviewing responses to the two churchwide studies the task force developed — “Journey Toge-ther Faithfully,” Part I and Part II.

Payne said, “We experience within the task force the same thing that the church experiences, which is an ongoing sharing of opinions on the subject and differences of opinions. We listen to one another and respect one another’s opinions.”

In a closed session, the task force discussed a spectrum of possible recommendations and the possible outcomes of their implementation. Members talked about the hope that the wording of their report and recommendations could divert the churchwide assembly from having to make a possibly church-dividing decision.

Concerns about such a possible church split are on the minds of church members and bishops. Some have voiced the hope that a vote on the two controversial issues could be put off or amended so that there would be no “losers.” Others want a definitive decision, stating that the church has put off a vote for too long already.

One creative alternative has been set forth by an Iowa theologian. Dr. Craig Nessan, on the faculty of Wartburg Theological Seminary, Du-buque, Iowa, has been leading seminars in which he suggests a sort of “local option” for congregations, as a concession to both sides.

But the Rev. Roy Harrisville III, who heads an independent group called Solid Rock Lutherans, says that would be unacceptable. In a story published in Metro Lutheran in September, Harrisville said the church has already spent too much money on the process not to make a decision.
Solid Rock Lutherans opposes changing the ELCA’s current position, which forbids ordaining persons living in a committed same-sex relationship.

The ELCA Conference of Bishops met with task force members October 1. Many of the bishops spoke of “the price of a yes/no vote” on blessing same-gender relationships or allowing people in such relationships to serve the church as lay and ordained ministers.