National Lutheran News

Lutheran World Federation struggles with sexuality issue

The world body will soon share its proposed document with member churches

The Lutheran World Federation (LWF), concluding a March 24 Council meeting in Lund, Sweden, held a plenary discussion regarding its final report on proposed guidelines for churches worldwide addressing the issues of marriage, family, and human sexuality. This follows the ELCA’s third and final report on human sexuality released on December 4, 2006.

After the Tenth Assembly of the LWF, held in Winni-peg, Canada, in 2003, a task force was created to respond to concerns including homosexuality, an issue that has divided synods and congregations — in the Lutheran family and beyond.

The LWF speaks on behalf of the majority of Lutherans worldwide (reported by the LWF at over 66 million). Among U.S. Lutheran groups, only the ELCA is a member.
The task force met in Geneva, Switzerland, April 4-7, 2005, and again January 26-31, 2006.

Professor Jan-Olav Hen-riksen, Church of Norway, a member of the task force, explained the significance of the discussion. An LWF news release paraphrased his remarks: “The aim of the guidelines was not to give a common position on the subject matter, but rather to enable member churches to discuss the changing realities in relation to family, gender and sexuality in today’s world.”

Some member church leaders were critical. Said Bishop Joseph P. Bvumbwe of Malawi, “Certain churches have already taken a [position] on the matter. Why have the dialogue then?” Archbishop Janis Vanags of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia found the report unhelpful, saying, “In my church, homosexuality is regarded as a sin. When some churches have a different opinion, then it means division.”

Others voiced appreciation for the report. Vicar Abigail Zang Hoffman of the ELCA said the document allowed for “a dialogue to see how the dialogue [should take place]” within congregations.

In Minnesota, Professor Darrell Jodock, the Drell and Adeline Bernhardson Distinguished Professor of Re-ligion at Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, Minnesota, reflected on his time as a pastor when dealing with such issues. “I would typically draw on my past theological and biblical studies and/or do some more reading on the topic.

“I might also discuss the issue with a clergy colleague [in the same congregation]. And, if needed, I would consult with a professional counselor at Lutheran Social Service. Unless the matter went beyond my own congregation, it is unlikely that I would consult the bishop or other church authority.”

Homosexuality has become a flashpoint for controversy and debate in Lutheran congregations, although it wasn’t until recently that churches started addressing the problem officially. In 2005, the ELCA defeated a proposal that would have allowed clergy with same-sex partners to lead congregations. The decision appears not to have put the issue to rest in the denomination.

Jodock directed attention to perhaps the larger or more troublesome issue within congregations. “Contention is more likely to develop regarding the sexuality of a pastor — and this can happen whether the pastor is homosexual or heterosexual.

“Currently the only recognized long-term sexual relationship for clergy is marriage, so any sexual activity on the pastor’s part outside of marriage (whe-ther same sex or with the opposite sex) is problematic for a congregation. For this reason, a formal recognition of same-sex long-term relationships needs to be in place before the requirements for ordination will be changed.”

The Rev. Dr. Ishmael Noko, General Secretary of the LWF, was paraphrased in a press release saying, “The issue of marriage, family, and sexuality should not threaten church unity, because Jesus Christ is the host [of the church] and the rest are simply guests invited to partake of the one Holy Communion.”

The report is being sent to member churches, including the ELCA, for further discussion.

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Hedberg is a freelance journalist based in Minneapolis. He completed research for some of this story while traveling in Europe several months ago.