America’s largest Lutheran denomination has reached its crossroads on homosexuality and allowing openly gay clergy, with crucial votes slated at its biennial assembly this week in Minneapolis that participants say are too close to call.
“We recognize we’re in for some long conversation this week,” said Virginia Synod Bishop James F. Mauney, who oversees 42,000 members in 163 churches across the state. “I am hopeful that our worship will guide our conversation and we will be guided by the Holy Spirit.”
The gathering of 65 synods representing the 4.6-million-member Evangelical Lutheran Church in America mirrors a denomination split over homosexuality.
Only celibate gay clergy can serve in ELCA churches. A small majority - 54 percent - of ELCA clergy support gay ordination, according to a Clergy Voices survey conducted in May and posted recently on the denomination’s Web site.
Of the two main documents on sexuality issues that will be considered at the ELCA assembly, one is a proposed social statement, “Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust,” which, as a statement of church teaching, must be passed by a two-thirds vote (about 700 people) of the 1,045 voting members present.
Eight years in the making, the 33-page treatise is a theological and teaching document that sets out denominational policy on a variety of topics ranging from marriage to pornography, and defines human sexuality as a “gift and trust.” It will be debated Tuesday afternoon and put to a vote Wednesday.
The other document, called a “Report and Recommendation on Ministry Policies,” recommends a change in ELCA ministry policies so Lutherans who are in “publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gendered relationships” can serve as ELCA associates in ministry, deaconesses, diaconal ministers and ordained ministers.
The document would set up the ordination of openly practicing gays as a local option, under which each synod could choose or refuse to adopt the policy.
Discussion is slated for Thursday, and a vote is scheduled for Friday afternoon.
But on Monday night, Lutherans will vote on whether the document, known in shorthand as “the recommendation,” can be passed by a simple majority vote; that is about 520 people, greatly lowering the bar for passage. However, a two-thirds majority vote is needed to agree that the sexuality recommendation can pass with a simple majority.
Bishop Mauney said everything hinges on Monday night’s vote.
“My sense is the vote will be very, very close,” said Bishop H. Gerald Knoche of the 90,000-member, 182-church Delaware-Maryland Synod. “My synod is pretty evenly divided.”
The convention delegates vote as individuals, but of the 65 synods, 37 have indicated they approve the sexuality statement and 34 have indicated that they approve of the recommendation - both numbers only a bit more than a majority of the synods.
Bishop Knoche said “many” Lutherans are concerned about the sexuality statement “for what they see as a false starting point theologically. The document bases most of its theological work [about sexuality] on the idea of trust.”
The Lutheran understanding of sexuality traditionally begins with the creation account in Genesis and “is based on [mankind] being created male and female,” he said. “This document does not begin there. They base their reasoning on faith and trust,” in order to include same-sex relationships, he added.
Both bishops raised the specter of angry reaction from overseas Lutherans should the ELCA agree to ordain gay clergy. After the Episcopal Church voted to consecrate an openly gay bishop in 2003, Anglican bishops overseas revolted and led the way in drawing thousands of Episcopalians out of the denomination and into breakaway Anglican groups.
“Like the Anglicans, we have a large number of Lutherans in Africa, and they are opposed to change,” Bishop Knoche said. “The Lutheran bishop of China told us how damaging to their work it would be if [the recommendation] would pass.”
Other issues coming before assembly include an agreement to enter into the full communion with the United Methodist Church and a vote on whether to partner with the United Nations in malaria and AIDS eradication programs.