National Lutheran News

ELCA won’t allow ordination exceptions

Blessings for gay unions will be possible if local clergy choose to offer them

Voting members at the 2005 ELCA Church-wide Assembly, meeting in Orlando, Florida Aug-ust 8-14, rejected a proposal that would allow exceptions to the church’s policy against permitting the ordination of ministry candidates living in committed, long-term same-gender relationships.

A task force had brought three recommendations for voters’ action. The first two were approved. One asked members of the 4.9 million member denomination to find ways to live together without rancor. The second allows congregations and pastors to “discern ways to provide faithful pastoral care to all to whom they minister.” The general understanding is that this could include blessings for same-gender couples. The church does not have, nor plan to develop, a specific rite for such blessings.

Recommendation 3 was
the most controversial

The third recommendation would have opened the door to the ordination of same-gender candidates who live in committed, long-term relationships. Shortly after 5 p.m., following two hours of passionate debate, the voters split their votes, 490-503 against the proposal, just missing a majority and falling far short of the 2/3 required for adoption.

In the debate preceding the vote, proponents argued that ELCA predecessor bodies had set aside as “culturally obsolete” the Bible’s rationale for keeping women from ordination. They said Scripture should be read the same way, where condemnations of gay and lesbian persons are concerned. Those supporting the change argued that same-gender persons living in committed relationships are being treated unjustly and that they have been marginalized by the church. They maintained that the ELCA risks alienating young adults, for whom such ordinations are not an issue.

Arguments from opponents reflected a concern for Lutheran confessional integrity, a desire to apply Scripture in “its clear and plain sense,” and a fear that taking such a step would have unwelcome consequences for ELCA partnership with the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS), with African Lutherans, and with ecumenical partners. Detractors also voiced a worry about fallout in their home congregations. There was also a concern, voiced by at least one speaker, that taking such a step could plunge the ELCA into the same turmoil experienced by the Episcopal Church in the U.S., following its decision to elevate a priest living in a same-gender relationship to the office of bishop.

Sidelined vigil
takes center stage

The proposal was introduced to voting members at 3:00 p.m. on Friday afternoon. As they had during previous days of the assembly, members of Goodsoil, an advocacy group urging the approval of exceptions to the church’s Vision and Expectations guidelines for clergy, stood in silent vigil on both sides of the plenary hall. Midway through the debate on Friday afternoon, the Goodsoil representatives, more than three-dozen strong, wearing rainbow stoles, walked through a barrier erected to keep non-credentialed attendees from the center of the room. They positioned themselves at the base of the speaker’s podium, where they stood, silently praying. Their violation of assembly rules brought angry protests from some voters. After twice asking the group to remove themselves, to no avail, Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson decided to proceed with the demonstrators still in place.
In response to a voter, who asked why the bishop was tolerating an obvious breach of the rules, Hanson replied, “I’ve raised six children. I’ve learned when to push and when to back off.”

Speaking to reporters following the session, Hanson said he was hopeful members of the denomination would continue talking to one another respectfully. Metro Lutheran asked Hanson whether he believed that the close vote suggests a deeply divided church. He said, “Clearly, this is where the ELCA is right now,” suggesting that those desiring change are probably increasing in number and will continue to do so.

Rejoicing, disappointment
from opponents, supporters

Solid Rock Lutherans, a group organized specifically to oppose any changes in church policy regarding ordination, held gatherings all week long, encouraging voting members to oppose Recommendation 3. Another independent group opposing recommendations 2 and 3, WordAlone Network, issued a statement late Friday afternoon. Concerning Recom-mendation 2, it asked, “By what authority can the ELCA bless homosexual relationships?” Concerning Recom-mendation 3, it stated, “Thankfully … the assembly didn’t disregard the authority of God’s Word concerning the standards for church leaders.”

The Rev. Anita Hill, pastor of St. Paul-Reformation Lu-theran Church, St. Paul, Minnesota, working with Goodsoil, said, “I grew up in the southern U.S. We had a policy called ‘separate but equal’. I assure you, black people were not treated with anything like equality. Gay and Lesbian Lutheran Christians are being treated no better in this church today.”

The Rev. Steve Benson, pastor of Bethany Lutheran Church in Minneapolis’ Sew-ard Neighborhood, is directly affected by the defeat of Recommendation 3. His ministry partner, the Rev. Jay Wiesner, lives in a committed same-sex relationship and was ordained contrary to church rules. Benson told Metro Lu-theran he does not anticipate making any changes in the way Bethany’s ministry is structured, but admitted the synod could discipline him.