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ELCA ready to vote on sexuality issues

Area ELCA members are divided on what should happen in Orlando

Opinions among metro-area clergy and lay persons on the sexuality issues that will come before the ELCA’s biennial Churchwide As-sembly August 8-14 in Orlando, Florida, remain sharply divided.
That’s the finding of a Metro Lutheran survey of leaders in five Twin Cities congregations during the month prior to the national gathering of the 5.1 million member church body.
Three resolutions from the churchwide Church Council, which deal mainly with the issues of blessing same-sex unions and ordination of persons in same-sex, non-celibate relationships, will be on the agenda at Orlando.
The resolutions generally follow the recommendations of a task force which was established in 2001 to study those sexuality issues, and which issued its report in January 2005.
The report was widely recognized as a compromise. On the one hand, it would accept existing ELCA policies disapproving the blessing of same-sex unions and forbidding ordination of persons in homosexual relationships. Simultaneously, it would open the way for local congregations, pastors and bishops to make exceptions to those rules.
Voting members in both the Minneapolis and St. Paul Area Synods affirmed the recommendations of the task force and Church Council at their assemblies this spring. Both groups also sent several resolutions that went further in proposing liberalizing current ELCA policies, resolutions forwarded for consideration by the churchwide assembly.
(For actions taken by the St. Paul Area Synod, refer to a story on page 3.)
However, the 35 members of the Minneapolis Synod and 27 from St. Paul, some clergy and some lay, who were elected at synod assemblies a year ago to cast votes at the Orlando assembly, will make their decisions independent of local synod actions. So will the nearly 1,000 other voting members, of whom at least 60% are lay and the remainder are clergy.
The first recommendation from the Church Council, urging all entities of the ELCA to find ways “to live together faithfully in the midst of disagreements” seems noncontroversial.
“It’s like voting for Mom and apple pie,” said the Rev. Tim Johnson, senior pastor at Zion Lutheran in Anoka.
The Rev. Siri Dale, pastor of discipling ministries at Trinity Lutheran in Still-water, takes it a bit further.
“It’s a wise way to begin the conversation,” she said. “It honors the fact that there are differences among the people in the ELCA, and it calls and challenges us to consider that we find our unity in something greater than this particular issue of sexuality.”
But when it comes to the issues of blessing same-sex unions and ordaining persons in homosexual relationships, Johnson and the Rev. M. Susan Peterson, senior pastor of Gloria Dei Lutheran in St. Paul, take positions that seem miles apart.
On the issue of same-sex unions, the resolution from the Church Council that is on the agenda at Orlando calls on the ELCA to continue to respect the 1993 statement by the church’s Council of Bishops — that the church disapproves of any official ceremony blessing same-sex marriage. But, it adds that the church’s position should be that it welcomes gay and lesbian persons into its life and “trusts pastors and congregations to discern ways to provide pastoral care to same-sex couples.”
Johnson said that the resolution, as it is written, would be acceptable to him. But he thinks there’s far more beneath the surface than the words. The real intent, he believes, is to allow blessing of same-sex unions without incurring disciplinary action by the church. That leaves him “at best, ambivalent.”
The Anoka pastor said his primary position on both the gay marriage and ordination issues is that the ELCA should hold firm on the 1993 bishops’ statement opposing the blessing of same-sex unions and the ELCA’s 1990 Vision and Expectations statement op-posing ordination of persons in homosexual relationships.
What is happening now in the ELCA is “hypocritical,” Johnson asserted, be-cause it fails to deal squarely with the issue that he feels is tearing the church apart — ”whether homosexual be-havior is to be approved by the church or even seen as normative with other relationships.”
On the matter of ordinations, the Church Council recommendation that is on the agenda at Orlando would set up a process for making exceptions to the policy of not ordaining persons in homosexual relationships. An exception could be made if there is evidence of such a person’s intent to live in a “lifelong, committed and faithful relationship” and there is a congregation that wants to call and ordain him or her.
Anoka’s Johnson said it’s hard for him to oppose this recommendation because he has strong feelings about the power of local congregations to choose their own leadership. But that inclination is probably outweighed, he said, by the failure of the proposal to deal squarely with the issue of homosexual behavior.
“I truly believe that we probably have not figured out the immense ramifications of this kind of action,” he said, referring to the third recommendation from the Church Council.
Johnson added, “Until someone presents reasons and persuasive biblical, historical and theological arguments for this change, I’m not sure we should do this. No such thing has come forward, at least to my knowledge.
“If the ELCA approves this third recommendation, it will put itself at odds with the vast majority of Christian tradition and present practice of Christian churches around the world.”
Johnson will not be a voting member at the Orlando assembly, but two members of his congregation will. One of them, Doug Jones, said he will vote against the second Council recommendation unless it is altered to make sure that “pastoral care” for homosexuals in the church does not imply the possibility of blessing same-sex unions.
Jones said he definitely will vote against the third recommendation, which al-lows for ordination of homosexual persons in “exceptional” circumstances.
“There’s no biblical basis for it,” he said. “I think sexual morality is important for our clergy whether they are heterosexual or homosexual. I think sex should be practiced only within the context of marriage between a man and a woman.”
Gloria Dei Pastor Peterson takes a far different view. She said she recognizes that the Council recommendations are a sort of compromise, that they open the door in the direction she would like to see the church move but they do not go far enough.
She was a leader last month as the St. Paul Area Synod passed two resolutions in addition to ones supporting the Council recommendations.
Included was language memorializing the Orlando assembly “to ordain, commission and consecrate same-gender persons in publicly covenanted relationships that are mutual, chaste and faithful and to make appropriate revisions in Vision and Expectations and other documents and create a timeline for implementation of this policy.”
Peterson said the Gloria Dei congregation has voted to allow its pastors to make judgments about blessing of gay unions where the persons are in a committed relationship.
“I would hope that we would be able to develop these blessing ceremonies because I think it’s imperative that we acknowledge, warmly receive and welcome people who wish to be in loving, committed relationships,” she declared.
As for the Council recommendation on ordinations, Peterson said she has real difficulty with the use of the word “exceptions” to de-scribe the policy under which homosexual persons might be allowed to join the ELCA clergy roster.
“I wish for my gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered brothers and sisters not to be considered exceptions but one of many of us,” the pastor said. While the Council recommendation does open the door on the ordination issue, she said, “I think we’ll have to see in the discussion on the floor at the churchwide assembly if there might be an opportunity to open that door more widely.”
Peterson will be a voting member at the Orlando as-sembly, as an individual but not as a representative of the congregation.
Meg Stevenson, president of the Gloria Dei congregation, said members of the church studied issues surrounding homosexuality exhaustively when it became a Reconcil-ing in Christ (RIC) congregation. They voted by an 80-20% margin to allow their pastors to bless same-sex unions, she said, but the important thing was that members found a way to disagree respectfully. None of the 20% has left the church because of the debate, she said.
“I’m glad we came to the decision we did,” Stevenson said, “but more importantly that we had the courage to have the conversation. We learned we could have difficult conversation, come out not in total agreement, but understand we’re a faith community and [there’s more to us] than just this one issue.”
Pastors Chris Nelson of Bethlehem Lutheran in south Minneapolis and Paul Harrington of Shepherd of the Valley in Apple Valley occupy something of a middle ground in the sexuality debate.
Both pastors stressed that there is currently no consensus in the ELCA on the same-sex marriage and ordination issues. Both think the best policy is probably to agree to disagree, rather than force a divisive vote that could lead the ELCA into a shipwreck.
“The task force did a marvelously sensitive job in synthesizing all points of view in the church and walking through this potentially explosive minefield,” Nelson said.
“They did it in a way that allows all sides to agree to disagree while we do the work of the Gospel. The task force and Church Council have put us in a position where we don’t have to have a shipwreck if we don’t want to.”
Nelson indicated he would prefer that the Orlando assembly simply accept the report of the task force and not force a vote on the matter. A vote would create winners and losers, he said.
The Bethlehem pastor added, “Until we solve the marriage problem as a society, I don’t think we can have unmarried persons involved in sexual relations and have them be clergy.”
Harrington was emphatic in saying that the ELCA is not ready to deal with the sexuality issue yet and that it should be put off until there is a consensus. Otherwise there could be a train wreck, he said.
“I wish it could be tabled,” he declared.
The Apple Valley pastor said he thinks the ELCA has made a mistake in allowing two issues — ecumenical relations with the Episcopal Church and the place of homosexuals in the church — to dominate its agenda for two decades. He said he feels that the sexuality issue has been “orchestrated” and warned that “you don’t want to stuff something down the throats of Lutherans.”
Harrington said he thinks the problems surrounding the role of homosexuals will eventually have to be resolved for society in the civil courts.
How ELCA members “back home” will respond to decisions made in Orlando is anybody’s guess. No matter what actions are taken, some in the nation’s largest Lu-theran body are bound to be disappointed.