A Lutheran task force handed a victory to homosexual rights groups yesterday by recommending that although the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America should not change its policy against ordaining homosexual clergy, it should not censure churches that break the rule.
But “those who feel conscience-bound to call people [as pastors] in committed same-sex unions should refrain from making the call a media event either as an act of defiance or with the presumption of being prophetic,” the task force warned.
The 14-member task force pronounced itself conflicted and unable to agree about how the ELCA should proceed.
What emerged in their report — released at church headquarters in Chicago — was a compromise in which congregations could hire homosexual clergy without making this the official policy in the 4.9-million-member denomination.
The compromise came as three recommendations:
That Lutherans “learn to live together faithfully,” while disagreeing, thus avoiding the splits over homosexuality that have dominated the Episcopal Church, which has shared sacraments, clergy and ministry with the ELCA since 2001.
That the ELCA continue to have no official policy on same-sex unions, but “respect” a 1993 ELCA bishops’ statement that does not approve such ceremonies as official church acts;
That the denomination not discipline churches that hire homosexual clergy, nor the clergy themselves. At least 14 openly homosexual seminarians or clergy serve in ELCA churches, according to the San Francisco-based Lutheran Lesbian and Gay Ministries.
Several ELCA bishops raised red flags about the report, which will be debated and voted on in August at the ELCA’s Churchwide Assembly in Orlando, Fla.
Bishop H. Gerard Knoche of the Delaware-Maryland Synod called it “a policy change even though it claims not to be” from current ELCA policy that allows people with homosexual attractions to be ordained, but expects that they remain celibate.
Bishop James Mauney of ELCA’s Virginia Synod said he did not see “a basis for affirming homosexual behavior within Scripture or our Lutheran confessions.”
He added, “Nowhere do I see in the Scriptures where Jesus condones the practice of the tax collectors or the woman caught in adultery or the life of the rich young ruler, though we are told he loves him in the Gospel of Mark.”
The report follows the general drift of other mainline Protestant denominations to loosen their policies on homosexual clergy and same-sex unions.
The Episcopal Church already has ordained a practicing homosexual bishop and allows same-sex ceremonies in several dioceses, and the Presbyterian Church USA is deferring a final decision on such issues until 2006.
Those two churches have lost more than 1.5 million members combined in recent decades. The ELCA has lost 300,000 members since 1999.
Among Lutherans, “we found no consensus in the church on this matter,” said New England Synod Bishop Margaret Payne, chairman of the Task Force for ELCA Studies on Sexuality.
She cited a 2004 poll of 28,000 Lutherans, in which 38 percent opposed the blessing of same-sex unions and hiring homosexual clergy; 18 percent approved it; 14 percent said homosexuals should be welcomed as parishioners, but not hired as clergy nor should their unions be blessed; 12 percent were undecided; and the others gave mixed responses.
Thus, she added, the task force decided to treat ordination of homosexual pastors as valid dissent.
“It acknowledges the validity of conscientious objection and honors that,” she said. “Because of that, discipline will not be enforced. It’s a new dimension of respect … based on individual conscience.”
The task force cited Martin Luther, the founder of the denomination, as the paragon of individual conscience because of his statement at the Diet of Worms in 1521. The church reformer told the Diet — a church court — that he was bound in conscience to the Bible and that “it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience.”
However, yesterday’s report did not go far enough for the Lutheran Alliance for Full Participation, a consortium of six homosexual groups.
Although one spokesman for the alliance privately conceded that the report “leaves a lot of wiggle room,” its official statement expressed “dismay and deep sadness” at remaining strictures within the 32-page report.
“We remain committed to the removal of discriminatory policies that violate our calls to ministry and marginalize our relationships,” spokeswoman Emily Eastwood said.
Bishop Theodore F. Schneider of the ELCA’s Metropolitan Washington Synod said the report “raises many more questions and problems than it answers.
“I am not quite sure how the churchwide assembly can be asked to affirm the constitution, bylaws, policies and practices of this church and not expect that they be applied fairly and evenly,” he added.