National Lutheran News

ELCA continues to wrestle with issues of sexuality

The naton’s largest Lutheran denomination dealt with the same issue two years ago.

Voting members at the ELCA’s Chicago Churchwide Assembly (August 6-11) picked up an unfinished debate begun in previous national gatherings. The question of whether to permit openly gay and lesbian persons living in committed relationships to serve as rostered ordained ELCA clergy has challenged voting members for at least three churchwide assemblies.

At the 2005 Orlando Assembly, voting members defeated a resolution that would have mandated changing rules precluding such ordinations. Many thought the issue would disappear or lie dormant. But the advocacy group Goodsoil kept the issue alive, sponsoring memorials which came to most if not all of the 65 synod assemblies earlier this year. Over 20 synods endorsed Goodsoil-sponsored proposals for changes of the rules, forwarding them for consideration at Chicago.

The Memorials Committee recommended the proposals be referred to the task force which is preparing a statement on sexuality, to be ready in 2009. That disappointed supporters of a change in policy. They argued that delay served no useful purpose, and wondered during floor speeches whether the task force had any plans to offer language affecting a change in church policy.

Mindful of the highly-charged nature of the debate, voting members decided to pause every 20 minutes during that conversation for prayer and reflection. That set a tone which helped to eliminate some of the rancor frequently present in such discussions.

In preliminary remarks before the debate began, St. Paul Area Synod Bishop Peter Rogness reminded voting members that his synod’s 2007 assembly had supported a change in policy by a 2/3 vote. “Being dead certain isn’t a pattern that serves us well,” he said, adding, “I think we’d be well served by having fewer exclusive rules, creating a little space where we can simply see how the Spirit is moving the ministry along.”

Supporters of policy change rallied around a substitute motion, brought by Milwaukee Area Synod Bishop Paul Stumme-Diers. His proposal would have directed ELCA leadership to change language in documents governing who may properly be ordained, so that gay and lesbian clergy in committed relationships would no longer be excluded from ordination. Following a spirited debate, the substitute motion failed (450-581).

Almost immediately thereafter, the Rev. Craig Johnson, Bishop of the Minneapolis Area Synod, introduced a substitute motion requesting permission for synodical bishops to make exceptions to the rules when ministry considerations seem to make it appropriate. It was defeated (472-520).

Voting members then agreed to the original motion, to refer the question to the task force developing a social statement on sexuality (819-171).

A final effort to create space for gay and lesbian clergy in the ELCA came in the form of a motion brought by Bishop Paul Landahl of the Metropolitan Chicago Synod. His resolution asked that the ELCA and its bishops refrain from disciplining clergy living in committed same-sex relationships and the congregations they serve. The motion carried, 538-431.

Bishop Craig Johnson told Metro Lutheran he was concerned that voting members were making decisions based on fear. “That’s not good biblical behavior,” he observed. He said he’d felt some fearfulness about this issue when he took office 72 months ago. “I’ve grown beyond that now,” he said.

During the Assembly, Goodsoil distributed a devotional publication, A Place Within My Walls, including reflections and stories of gay and lesbian clergy in committed relationships. The brochure included a list of 82 gay and lesbian individuals ordained or seeking ordination. Many had previously been known to the church. Many others were sharing their names for the first time.