National Lutheran News

ELCA churchwide assembly tackles health, ecumenical, ministry issues

Minneapolis gathering saw stormy debate in the hall and a tornado outside

Voting members who gathered in Minneapolis August 17-23 had a lot on their plate. Over 1,000 credentialed participants, from all 65 synods within the 4.6 million-member Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), spent a week working through an ambitious agenda — undeterred by long hours, lengthy debate, and a Wednesday afternoon tornado that damaged the convention center while voters were working inside.

By week’s end, the national gathering of the nation’s largest Lutheran church body had entered into an anti-malaria ministry partnership with the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS), established a new relationship with the United Methodist Church, adopted a social statement on sexuality seven years in the making, and changed the rules for who may serve on the denomination’s clergy roster.

The Lutheran Malaria Initiative (LMI) will be a four-way partnership, involving the ELCA, LCMS, Lutheran World Relief (LWR), and the United Nations Foundation. It seeks to eradicate malaria in sub-Saharan Africa by 2015. By a vote of 989-11, voting members ratified the initiative, already affirmed by LCMS. It would provide treated malaria nets for sleeping and anti-malarial medicines on a wide scale.

LWR executive director John Nunes told the assembly there is an unavoidable link between malaria and poverty. He put it this way: “When you’re sick, you can’t work. When you can’t work, you can’t provide for your family.”

With little discussion and no controversy, voters approved a full-communion agreement with the United Methodist Church (UMC). The understanding permits ELCA and UMC clergy to serve in each other’s pulpits, and will help both denominations to provide ministry in areas where one or the other faith community’s members are thinly represented. Its the sixth such agreement for the ELCA, but only the first for the UMC.

Favoring the proposal, voting member Steven Chapman, of the Northwest Washington Synod, asked, “What took us so long? What I want to know is, what will the Methodists bring to the potluck?”

Replied the Rev. Sally Dyck, United Methodist Bishop for Minnesota, a guest in the hall, “I think we United Methodists and you ELCA Lutherans both have the same recipe books.” With a required 2/3 margin, the measure carried overwhelmingly, by a vote of 949-24.

Voting members agreed to support an initiative (884-41) to raise $10 million for the ELCA Hunger Appeal, funds to be earmarked for fighting AIDS. A resolution supporting comprehensive immigration reform in the U.S. was approved, 873-82.

Voters approved a resolution (929-9) to provide braille, large-print, and audio materials for blind and visually impaired members of the ELCA.

The most energy at the Minneapolis Assembly was expended on topics related to sexuality. The discussion began early and ended five days later. Six separate votes were taken, all related to the topic. All resulted in approval for proposals brought from groups recommending changes. All six votes were preceded by lengthy debate. Most of the points of argument had been heard previously, when similar proposals had surfaced — and failed — in Orlando (2005) and Chicago (2007).

What was intended to be a procedural vote on Monday evening turned into a full-blown debate about who may serve on the ELCA clergy roster. Voting members considered whether issues related to sexuality should require a 2/3 “super-majority” for approval. The vote to make the change required only a simple majority, but was turned back by 57 percent. The result was that a set of four proposals concerning whether gay and lesbian clergy living in committed same-gender relationships might be included on the ELCA clergy roster could be passed by a simple majority. The Monday vote turned out to be a bellwether for what would happen on Friday.

A new social statement on human sexuality was debated on Wednesday. It addresses a wide range of concerns, including healthy marriage, spousal abuse, the growing phenomenon of couples cohabiting outside of marriage, the sex industry, and providing space for gay and lesbian couples in committed relationships. The ELCA constitution requires a 2/3 majority to approve a social statement. When the vote was taken at the end of the Wednesday afternoon session, the required margin was achieved without a single ballot to spare. The 676-338 vote resulted in a 66.67 percent approval.

The other four votes came in succession on Friday. They represented four proposals brought by a task force trying to find a way for the ELCA to allow gay and lesbian clergy to serve on the church body’s roster without requiring congregations to call them. All four were approved, clearing the way for a policy change in the church. The first (passed by 771-230) asked members on both sides of the controversy to honor the bound consciences of those who disagree with them. The second (619-402) asked the church to make room for congregations to bless same-gender committed relationships. The third (559-451) will allow congregations that choose to do so to call pastors in same-gender committed relationships. The fourth (667-307) instructs the leadership of the church to provide a process to enable such policy changes.

Concern was voiced about the possibility that church members would leave the denomination, or would withhold their offerings. Some wondered aloud whether entire congregations might choose to reaffiliate with other Lutheran groups, or simply to become independent. Mindful of the ferment, Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson issued a solemn plea for voters in the hall, and members throughout the church, to step back, consider, think, pray, and discuss with one another.

Hanson signaled his concern even before the first session began. Responding to a question from a reporter for the Twin Cities ABC-TV affiliate, he said, “There will be deep and profound disappointment no matter which way the votes go.”

After the sixth and final vote was announced on Friday, Hanson addressed the assembly. The mood was somber and his voice was subdued. He spoke pastorally, explaining how he would respond to various constituents, depending on how they felt about the way the votes had gone. He concluded by saying, “We finally meet one another, not in our agreements or our disagreements but at the foot of the cross, where God is faithful, where Christ is present with us, and where, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we are one in Christ.”

Toward the end of the assembly week, LCMS President Gerald Kieschnick addressed voters. Referencing the actions already taken, he said, “The decisions by this assembly will undoubtedly cause additional stress within the ELCA. It will also affect negatively the relationships between our two church bodies. The division threatens to become a chasm. This grieves my heart.”

Responding to Kieschnick, Hanson said, “I want you to hear that the shared confessions we hold together will, I hope, be strong enough to hold us together, in spite of these difficult times that acknowledge our differences. We share ministry in Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, Lutheran World Relief, Lutheran Disaster Relief, Lutheran Malaria Initiative and other ministries. We need to nurture those ties.”

The next ELCA Churchwide Assembly is planned for summer, 2011, in Orlando, Florida.