- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 8, 2001

The nation's largest Lutheran body today begins a seven-day assembly to debate new rules on homosexual clergy and "unions," school vouchers, and a new ecumenical agreement that gives bishops sole power to ordain pastors.

"I think we'll see a pretty open discussion on all these topics," said ELCA spokesman John Brooks from the Indiana Convention Center in Indianapolis.

Whatever the 1,040 voting delegates decide, the 5.1 million-member Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) will also end its Churchwide Assembly by electing a new top bishop, who will serve a six-year term.

The candidates for bishop will not be known until the first ballot tonight, he said, and a candidate with a majority vote will emerge Saturday.

The church's 65 synods, or regions, have sent resolutions called "memorials" to modify denomination policy, and the ones on homosexuality are expected to spur the most debate yet at the biennial assembly, he said.

The committee that fields memorials has designated the topic of same-sex unions as a matter for floor discussion.

But its recommendation to send resolutions on ordination of active homosexuals to a study panel may be reversed by advocates on the floor, Mr. Brooks said. Still, he said, "I don't have any indication that the assembly is willing to change long-standing policy" that bars active homosexuals from ordination.

While four synods have asked for clarification on pastors' or sanctuaries' involvement in the blessing of homosexual relationships, the Washington D.C. Metro Synod has urged development of a "rite of blessing" for homosexuals in committed, lifelong relationships.

However, the D.C. synod has also suggested that the church should "continue to sanction the blessing of marriages only between a man and a woman."

Soulforce, a homosexual-rights civil disobedience group that has demonstrated at major denominational meetings in the past two years, has targeted the ELCA gathering.

Mr. Brooks said church organizers have been in contact with religious-oriented activist groups, and have been assured of no disruptions inside or sit-ins that would block entrances.

"They have every right to be here," Mr. Brooks said.

One other activist group on the scene is WordAlone, which formed as a dissenting association when the ELCA forged the "Call to Common Mission" agreement with the Episcopal Church in January.

The ecumenical step, called "full communion," allows the two denominations to share clergy and altars, but also enhances the power of Lutheran bishops by giving them the sole power to ordain new pastors.

WordAlone, calling this a violation of Lutheran egalitarianism and the beginnings of a "spiritual caste system," says pastors must keep their authority to ordain.

To allow this exception, an "ordination in unusual circumstances" amendment will go to floor for a vote but will need two-thirds' approval to pass. "That is a high hurdle," Mr. Brooks said.

But WordAlone activists promise to be on the floor, lobbying delegates to pass it or a "freedom amendment" that is even more lenient.

"If these amendments don't pass, I believe we will see the rift in the ELCA grow even wider," said the Rev. Mark Chavez, executive director of the WordAlone Network, which claims 90,000 members in the ELCA.

The ELCA, which operates 28 high schools and 265 elementary schools, for the first time will vote on criteria by which clergy in a synod may judge whether to support state initiatives for school vouchers.

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