- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 11, 2005

America’s largest Lutheran denomination, after years of internal debate over how to deal with homosexuality, is set to issue a key statement tomorrow on whether the church should bless same-sex relationships and whether homosexuals should be ordained.

At noon tomorrow, a Studies on Sexuality task force for the 4.9-million-member Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) will release a statement on possible changes in church policy on both topics.

Although most of the statement was drafted Dec. 10-12 in Chicago by a 15-member task force, it is being kept under wraps until tomorrow, when it will be posted at www.elca.org and discussed at church headquarters in Chicago. Church leaders will be e-mailed a confidential preview copy of the document at noon today .

Final revisions were completed Friday on the report, which numbers about 25 pages, according to a church spokesman.

Lutherans are being asked to read and react to the statement in time for a conference of ELCA bishops March 3-8 in Dallas and for the ELCA’s biennial assembly Aug. 8-14 in Orlando, Fla.

Three local ELCA bishops contacted by The Washington Times all refused to comment on the statement until tomorrow. Because the recommendations must be passed by a two-thirds majority at the assembly, the possibility of changing ELCA doctrine on homosexuality might be difficult.

Current church policy expects ministers to refrain from all sexual relations outside marriage, which it defines as “a lifelong covenant of faithfulness between a man and a woman.”

When two San Francisco congregations ordained three homosexual ministers in 1990, they were ejected from the denomination. But Lutheran Lesbian and Gay Ministries, a group founded that same year, has since then assembled a roster of 33 homosexual Lutheran pastors or seminarians, 14 of whom are serving in Lutheran congregations, although none in the metro Washington area.

To date, only one of these congregations has been expelled: the Central City Lutheran Mission in San Bernardino, Calif., which installed a lesbian as associate pastor in April. Its senior pastor was put on a leave of absence and the associate was never approved by the denomination.

Greg Egertson, co-chairman of Lutheran Lesbian and Gay Ministries, said indications are “not good” about tomorrow’s statement.

“The expulsion of Central City Mission may be an indicator of a backlash,” he said. “We are trying to stay optimistic and continue in our ministry of advocacy.”

The church has no official policy on blessing same-sex relationships, although in 1993 the ELCA Conference of Bishops stated it does not approve of such ceremonies.

Robert Benne, a professor of social ethics and theology at Roanoke College, thinks the statement will allow same-sex blessings as “exceptions” to Lutheran practice.

“It will introduce a local option into the teachings and practices of the church,” he said. “They will look like they are not changing anything, but they will sneak in many exceptions. I’m expecting a proposal hard to defeat. It will be a mixed bag.”

Should the statement introduce more liberal beliefs, “it will be fought very hard,” he said. “The section of people who will be happy with [a liberal policy] won’t be where our growth is.”

Some Lutheran churches are adding members but, overall, like other mainline Protestant denominations, the ELCA reported a loss in 2003, dropping 1.1 percent, or 53,141 baptized members, from 2002. This brought church membership to 4,984,925, down from 5,038,006.

The task force has been meeting since May 2002 to discuss whether to change ELCA positions on homosexuality.

The ELCA’s 10,657 congregations may study the report and recommendations January through March, with responses directed to synod councils and assemblies. Based on the reactions, a church council meeting in April will prepare a resolution for Lutherans to vote on at the August convention.

Although this document will be voted on in August, an additional social statement on human sexuality is being developed by the task force for Lutherans to consider in 2007. Its first draft will be published in the spring of 2006.

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