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Issue Date:  February 4, 2005

Lutheran report on gay issues leaves room on both sides


A task force mandated by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America to prepare recommendations on church policy regarding same-sex unions and the ordination of gay and lesbian clergy favored continuing dialogue and pastoral discretion over legislative action in a study released Jan. 13.

“This church,” the 14-member task force of the ELCA Studies on Sexuality said in its report, “may choose to refrain from disciplining those who in good conscience, and for the sake of outreach, ministry and the commitment to continuing dialogue, call or approve partnered gay or lesbian candidates whom they believe to be otherwise in compliance” with church policy. Currently, that policy welcomes gays and lesbians to the clergy, but requires them to practice celibacy.

The task force, at work nearly four years, reviewed more than 28,000 comments from Lutheran parishes and individuals, revealing deep division on the matter of homosexuality within the 5 million-member church.

The Rev. James M. Childs Jr., director of ELCA Studies on Sexuality, said, “You’ve got 57 percent of the people opposing change,” with the rest “either saying let’s change or let’s offer alternatives or let’s delay or offering no opinion.

“You don’t have consensus.”

As a result, the task force did not comment directly on the matter of gay marriage. Facing a divided church, the task force had to confront the critical question of language.

“You don’t say 57 percent aren’t ready,” Childs said. “We have to say, as the report does, the case for change has not been made to the satisfaction of the majority. Therefore we don’t recommend changes in policy or the initiation of new policy.

“One can predict that those who favored change on a full scale: affirmation of same-sex unions and fostering, ordaining, consecrating and commissioning people in such unions -- or at least to provide structures for local option on that matter -- would be disappointed because they felt the time for change, the time for prophetic courage, had come.

“On the other hand,” he said, Lutherans who favor “absolute prohibition against such things would feel that any suggestion that there is a legitimate conscience-bound point of view other than their own, or that the church should accommodate [that point of view] by allowing pastoral concern to intervene would be unacceptable.

“So we can expect that. However, some people from both sides may be willing to work for those changes which we feel are necessary to make without repudiating the whole enterprise.”

Situating the report in a cautious middle was not merely a reflection of lack of consensus, but a desire to leave enough room for both sides.

In a written statement to NCR, the Rev. Philip Krey, president of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, acknowledged, “Today there is wider acceptance that homosexuality is not blameworthy and we welcome people who are homosexual into the ELCA.”

Still, he said, “there has been both change and resistance” in the ELCA.

The study, he added, is “in continuity with the Lutheran tradition by respecting the individual conscience that is bound to the Bible” on these issues.

“We came to the conclusion,” Childs said, “that those who participated in the study and gave their responses demonstrated conscience-bound commitment to the Bible and its teachings as they understood it in light of today’s circumstances. And the way in which the church has resolved issues of conscience and difference in biblical interpretation is really through the ongoing deliberation that we refer to as tradition.

“I think people were somewhat surprised,” he said. “I think they were expecting that we would try to push through major change or that we would delay or give up instead of trying to find ways to respect one another’s consciences and stay engaged on the issue.”

Still, he added, the question now “is do we each pick up our bat and ball and go our separate ways or do we stay engaged and put the matter into the realm of pastoral care rather than public policy? ”

“We’re asking people to think outside the box,” Childs said. “Can we live with a tension between public policy and the possibilities of pastoral discretion?”

The answer may not be clear immediately. The report was issued early in the year to give the church “all kinds of opportunity to grapple with this thing and somehow get ownership” before coming to a churchwide assembly in August for a vote.

The process is intensive. The ELCA’s nearly 11,000 congregations will propose modifications to their synod councils. Synods and bishops will propose modifications to a church council, which will send its own proposals, and they may or may not differ dramatically from the task force’s recommendations.

That the task force allowed space for deliberation and change, Childs hopes, will mitigate somewhat “the idea that some insidious cabal has been convened to stuff something down the throat of the church that it doesn’t want.”

“Now people have to back off and say: ‘We’ve got something to say and we need to get down to business and say it.’ ”

As the vote nears, implications for Lutheran-Catholic dialogue may emerge. The ELCA task force had this in mind.

“We’ve tried to be sensitive to our ecumenical partners across Christendom,” Childs said.

“We understand that there are other church bodies who are opposed to changing things, although in every one of them there is ferment at the local level.

“I don’t think there is any church group that’s unaffected by it. Whether the Roman Catholic church feels as though this is a concession to something that shouldn’t be, or whether they’ll feel it’s an attempt to be sensitive and pastoral as we intended, I don’t know.”

The task force seems to be counting on its moderate position within the ECLA, a move that has disappointed conservatives and gay and lesbian advocates alike, to serve it well in ecumenical discussions.

“I hope the fact that we haven’t just taken a radical step in the face of what appears to be the majority opinion in Christendom -- I hope that will play.”

Jeff Severns Guntzel is an NCR reporter and writer. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, February 4, 2005

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