- The Washington Times - Friday, February 20, 2009

America’s largest Lutheran body inched closer to ordaining actively gay clergy with a recommendation Thursday that the 4.7-million-member church vote on the matter at its convention this summer.

A 15-member task force of theologians, academics, bishops and laity with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) released in a 17-page statement Thursday afternoon a proposal for delegates to vote on at the ELCA’s next convention, Aug. 17-23 in Minneapolis. To pass, the proposal needs the support of a simple majority of the delegates representing the ELCA’s 65 synods.

According to the proposal, each geographical synod would be allowed to decide whether to “call people in publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships” to the ministry. Only celibate gay clergy can now serve in any ELCA churches.

Although stressing repeatedly that the ELCA must vote decisively on the matter at its biennial meeting, the task force said a homosexual candidate in a “publicly accountable” relationship may sometimes be the “best-suited” person for a certain church.

The recommendation was accompanied by a 33-page treatise defining human sexuality as a “gift and trust,” along with a series of proposed resolutions for a liturgical rite for divorce, for partners of gay clergy to be included in denominational pension plans, and for sex-education programs in public and private Lutheran schools.

Local Lutheran bishops had mixed reactions.

“I think the church should move toward inclusion, diversity and the maximum amount of flexibility,” said Bishop Richard H. Graham of the 40,000-member Metropolitan Washington Synod. “The question is how fast and to what expense.”

He has one celibate homosexual serving in one of his 130 churches, he added, plus “several people in our candidacy process who are in various stages of coming out publicly.”

Bishop H. Gerald Knoche of the 94,000-member Delaware-Maryland Synod called the series of proposals “a detriment to our church.”

He said, “What they are proposing here is that different synods and churches can handle the problem according to their conscience. That will make it difficult to have clergy mobility in the national church. There will be different standards in different places.”

He added, “my conscience says homosexuality is sinful and we shouldn’t be holding it up as a lifestyle.”

While the “recommendations” statement stressed repeatedly that some Lutherans are under “bound conscience” to oppose gay clergy, it called its existing policy mandating that homosexuals stay celibate “undesirable and unrealistic.” The task force said the denomination has studied and debated the matter for seven years and that it already allowed celibate homosexuals in leadership posts.

The task force listed four proposed resolutions to be put to a vote in August. The first would decide whether Lutheran synods and congregations can support monogamous same-sex relationships.

If that passes, a second resolution would ask whether Lutherans would allow someone in such a relationship to join the ranks of Lutheran clergy.

A third would bind Lutherans into “respecting the bound consciences of those with whom they disagree,” presumably those opposed to gay clergy.

A fourth would grant a local option to synods that wish to accept gay ministers.

“Step one is the critical piece,” said Bishop James F. Mauney of the 43,000-member Virginia Synod. “It’s like a serve on a tennis rally. What you do with the serve depends on whether you get to the second, third or fourth shot.”

ELCA conventions in 2005 and 2007 “wouldn’t budge” on allowing gay clergy, said the bishop, adding that he is not aware of any of any gay clergy in his synod.

“There seems to be a spirit and mind of the assembly that doesn’t follow easily what one would assume,” he said.

Lutherans Concerned, a gay advocacy group based in St. Paul, Minn., applauded some features of the “recommendations” statement but said it offered no rite for gay marriage.

Allowing some synods to not ordain homosexuals amounts to “institutionalized discrimination,” it said in a statement.

WordAlone Network, a conservative Lutheran group in New Brighton, Minn., called the recommendations “smoke and mirrors” and promised to work to defeat all the proposed resolutions in August.

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