The Washington Times - August 21, 2009, 12:15PM

I am writing from the Minneapolis Convention Center. They were standing in long lines at the microphones; members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America — the largest of three major Lutheran denominations. Some were near tears. Others earnestly quoted Scripture and still others quoted Martin Luther.

Here is the vote they just passed: 619 ‘yes’ votes, or 60.63 percent, to 402 ‘no’ votes. The resolution: “that the ELCA commit itself to finding ways to allow congregations that choose to do so to recognize, support and hold publicly accountable life-long, monogamous, same-gender relationships.”

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Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson asked the assembly to not comment but to quietly pray. They started debating a second resolution allowing sexually active gay pastors but have just taken a lunch break. Bishop James Mauney of the Virginia Synod told me he voted for the first resolution. One can recognize the presence of gay couples in Lutheran churches, he said, but that does not mean clergy have to “bless” their relationships in terms of church-sanctioned quasi-wedding ceremonies. That he will not do. But will this resolution lead to same-sex blessings? That is the $64 you-know-what.

Both sides also mentioned — a lot — something called “bound conscience.”

One man was standing at the mike asking where in the church’s governing documents is the term “bound conscience” defined. He was told it’s not mentioned in the governing documents but it’s defined in plenty of other places, ie in the Augsburg Confession. The notion of “bound conscience” comes from Martin Luther himself when he said in 1521 before the Diet of Worms, in part, “I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. I cannot do otherwise. Here I stand, may God help me.”

The idea of “bound conscience” essentially means people have personal convictions about a given matter and they don’t want that conviction violated. The ELCA’s task force on sexuality put forth a number of controversial proposals built around the idea that people have committed positions to a particular opinion or interpretation of the Bible. The words “bound conscience” was used a lot. But what happens when peoples’ “bound consciences” clash?

That is what is going on here involving people of passionate convictions that oppose each other. A female bishop just told us that bound conscience is not an excuse for personal desire but the whole system of using “bound conscience” as a guide for action seems to have broken down. Seems to me that consciences must be informed by something. Martin Luther said his conscience was captive to the Bible. One Chinese-American approached a mike to ask the same question. “Does this mean everyone would do what they want in the name of conscience?” she asked. “Our conscience changes depending on the environment.”

— Julia Duin, religion editor