MINNEAPOLIS | America's largest Lutheran denomination voted Wednesday by the narrowest of margins to approve a theological statement on human sexuality that loosens church teaching on homosexuality despite being spooked by a tornado that touched down within a block of their meeting at the Minneapolis Convention Center.
The 676-338 vote was the exact number of the two-thirds margin needed to pass a policy statement for the 4.8-million-member Evangelical Lutheran Church of America.
The 34-page document "Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust" will now be considered as a teaching document for the country's most liberal Lutheran denomination and as a foundation for future church policies.
A few hours before the ELCA's governing body approved the sexuality statement, the gathering was interrupted by a police order to send everyone within the vast convention center into the convention hall because of an approaching twister.
At about 2 p.m., the tornado struck Central Lutheran Church across the street from the convention center, ripping down part of a 90-year-old steel cross atop the church.
Meanwhile, inside the center, ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson read the 121st Psalm -- which talks about God's loving care -- to the nervous assembly.
"We trust the weather is not a commentary on our work," said the Rev. Steven Loy, chairman of the ad hoc committee for the document.
The sexuality statement seeks to establish a theological framework for differing views on homosexuality. Currently, only celibate gays can serve as Lutheran clergy. Moreover, in 1993, ELCA bishops said there is "no basis" in Scripture or church tradition for the blessing of same-sex relationships.
The just-approved sexuality statement takes a different tack, contending that human sexuality is based on "trusting relationships," implying that some homosexual relationships fulfill the criteria.
It also gives people involved in "same-gender relationships [that] are lived out in lifelong and monogamous commitment" a place at the table as one of four views Lutherans have on homosexuality, and says such relationships ought to be "held to the same rigorous standards, sexual ethics and status as heterosexual marriage."
The denomination's gay caucus applauded the vote.
"The document recognizes the ministries of congregations which conduct blessings of same-gender relationships and same-gender marriages where such marriages are legal," said Emily Eastwood, executive director of Lutherans Concerned.
"The social statement is tolerant of our differences both in scriptural interpretation and practice. The social statement supports our unity without requiring uniformity. There is still much work to do, but the door to full inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered members and their families is now most definitely open," she said.
Debate on the statement and its amendments took the entire afternoon with long lines at each microphone. One of the longest arguments was on a proposed amendment, offered by Virginia Synod Bishop James F. Mauney, that said marriage provides "the possibility for the added blessing of children and the joy and responsibility for raising them in the faith."
The amendment, which failed 563 (56 percent) to 432 (42 percent), was criticized by members who said it didn't take into account infertile couples nor single and gay Lutherans who have children.
Bishop Richard H. Graham of the Metro Washington Synod, said that none of the 80 churches encompassing 34,596 Lutherans in his synod would leave over the matter.
"As a synod, we are in favor of inclusion of the largest variety of people," he said. "The statement has so much in it that is heartfelt and not controversial," including many statements on marriage.
"So much of it is in the mainstream of Lutheran thought," he added. "There are five or six sentences people disagree on."
Bishop H. Gerard Knoche of the Delaware-Maryland Synod, who is due to retire in October, said some of his congregations may leave for other Lutheran branches such as the Lutheran Churches in Mission for Christ.
Unlike Episcopal or Catholic churches, where the diocese usually retains ownership of individual churches, Lutheran synods often don't own an individual church's property. The bishop suggested it would be best not to sue congregations that wish to leave.
"We've been encouraged to be generous to the congregations that want to leave," he said. "If we are not brutal toward them, they might want to return."
Julia Duin is the Times’ religion editor. She has a master’s degree in religion from Trinity School for Ministry (an Episcopal seminary) and has covered the beat for three decades. Before coming to The Washington Times, she worked for five newspapers, including a stint as a religion writer for the Houston Chronicle and a year as city editor at the ...
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