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ELCA draws immediate reactions to the release of new draft of sexuality study

The Task Force for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) Studies on Sexuality released the “Draft Social Statement on Human Sexuality” March 13 for study and response across the 4.8 million-member ELCA. The release of the document garnered immediate response from several corners.
This document is years in the making. The 2001 ELCA Churchwide Assembly initiated the process to develop a social statement on human sexuality. At the direction of the council, a task force was formed to carry out the process. The task force published three studies and a youth resource to invite deliberation and response across the ELCA under the “Journey Together Faithfully” banner.
According to a press release from the ELCA communications department, the draft social statement does not address current ELCA policies, which “preclude practicing homosexual persons from the rosters of this church.” The task force has been asked to make recommendations on official church rosters to the 2009 Churchwide Assembly. These recommendations will be available in February 2009.
Early response by some groups within the ELCA seemed to take issue with whether or not this document hints toward a new policy.
Leaders of the WordAlone Network, a group “working for renewal within the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America,” are “disappointed with a proposed draft of an ELCA social statement on human sexuality because the document soft-pedals questions regarding sexual relationships outside of marriage,” according to spokesperson Mark Chavez. He says, “The statement, released today, could be used in support of changing ordination standards next year so that each synod would decide whether or not to ordain practicing homosexuals, which has been controversial in the ELCA for more than 15 years. They’re preparing the way for a local option on blessing same-sex relationships and ordaining practicing homosexuals,” he states.
Lutherans Concerned / North America (LC/NA), a group working “for the full inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Lutherans in all aspects of the life of their Church and congregations,” had a differing interpretation of the draft document. According to Emily Eastwood, executive director of LC/NA, “This draft merely tolerates rather than celebrates the presence of same-gender families in the church.
“It is inconsistent and insufficient: it confesses with regret that its historical teachings concerning homosexuality sometimes have been used to tear apart families with gay or lesbian members,” says Eastwood. “It calls for an end to discrimination, an end to violence against and persecution of sexual minorities. Yet the church continues to discriminate against same-gender couples and families by relegating them to second-class status. It is hypocritical for this church to hold society to a higher standard than itself.”
According to the Rev. Peter Strommen, bishop of the ELCA Northeastern Minnesota Synod and task force chair, the draft social statement “intentionally grounds its thinking in an evangelical Lutheran tradition. The reader will notice this as a prominent characteristic of the document. In addition, a case is made for important social institutions such as marriage.
“It is recognized that the same degree of social consensus that once existed can no longer be assumed. The use of ‘trust’ represents a fresh approach that is embedded in Lutheran tradition and effective in addressing both public and personal dimensions of human sexuality. This document works with the inter-relationship of the social, cultural, economic and religious, both private and public.”
Representatives of Word-Alone had a different reading of the social statement’s intent. They agree that the human sexuality document acknowledged that even after many years of study and conversation, the ELCA did not have consensus regarding homosexual relationships. The church “has committed itself” to continue in study, prayer, discernment and pastoral care,” a press release stated.
Jaynan Clark Egland, WordAlone president, said today, “We can draft statements and we can take votes and we can even change rites and ceremonies, but we still have no authority to change what God first ordered and how He ordered it.”
Lutheran CORE, a “coalition of pastors, lay people, congregations, and reforming groups that seeks to preserve the authority of Scripture in the ELCA,” responds similarly. “This is a cause of great concern,” Paull Spring, retired bishop of the ELCA Northwestern Pennsylvania Synod, says. “Lutherans have traditionally defined marriage as ‘a lifelong covenant of faithfulness between a man and a woman.’ The statement calls marriage a relationship of love and trust between two people. From this perspective, the statement opens the door to supporting same-gender committed relationships.”
Eastwood of LC/NA wishes this were more true. “The draft purports as fact the traditional definition of marriage,” she says. “But, there is no consensus within the ELCA that marriage is only between a man and a woman. In fact, some synods within the ELCA have repeatedly defeated resolutions asserting that definition of marriage. There is broad agreement on the values that are the ground and source of relational and family life. If we are going to promote those values in same-gender relationships, we should also honor those relationships.”
Even with strong initial disagreement, Strommen is hopeful that the original intent of the draft social statement is realized, resulting in “churchwide engagement and feedback. The invitation is, ‘Let’s think together and improve this document before it comes as a proposed statement in 2009’.”
Responses to the draft social statement are due to the task force November 1, 2008. Most of the ELCA’s 65 synods plan to host hearings between March and November as an opportunity for Lutherans to discuss the draft social statement. At least one representative of the task force is to attend each hearing.
Based on the responses from the church the task force will revise and prepare a proposed social statement, which is due in early 2009. The proposed social statement will be given to the ELCA Church Council for its consideration and with a request to place the document on the agenda of the 2009 ELCA Churchwide Assembly for action. (The Church Council is the ELCA’s legislative authority between churchwide assemblies.)
Each organization advocating a position on this topic is encouraging its members to participate in the response process, hoping to influence the outcome of the final statement and proposals.