Study materials: “Free in Christ to Serve the Neighbor: Lutherans Talk About Human Sexuality” can be downloaded free at the ELCA Web site or purchased for $5 from Augsburg Fortress (800-328-4648).
This assembly report was prepared by Charles Austin, Elizabeth Hunter, Kathleen Kastilahn, Daniel J. Lehmann, Julie B. Sevig and Sonia C. Solomonson.
ELCA policy was not changed with the assembly’s vote (538-431) urging synods and bishops to “refrain from or demonstrate restraint in disciplining” pastors in same-gender relationships or the congregations that call them.
( Download “Bishop Landahl’s substitution” from the ELCA Assembly Web site.)
|David P. Gleason (left) speaks to his motion of having synod bishops discuss their accountability for following the practices and procedures of the church. Paul Landahl, bishop of the Metropolitan Chicago Synod, listens on.|
But something did change, said Presiding Bishop Mark S. Hanson following the action on the last morning, which came after more than three hours of discussion and debate over four days. “I sense a desire that in the midst of deep disagreements on matters of sexuality within this church that we find some space and a place for how we might live together for the sake of the gospel.”
Hanson said he takes the action as “words of counsel, not words that change standards of the church.” He also said he will convene conversations with other church leaders on how to interpret the text, which was introduced by Paul Landahl, bishop of the Metropolitan Chicago Synod, as a substitute resolution to the recommendation to refer calls for such restraint submitted by 14 synods to the Conference of Bishops.
Earlier in the session, the assembly defeated (581-450) a directive to make a change in clergy expectation standards, removing the requirement that homosexual people “abstain from homosexual sexual relationships.”
Based on resolutions to the assembly, called memorials, from 21 synods, it, too, was offered as a substitute by Craig E. Johnson, bishop of the Minneapolis Area Synod. The memorials committee recommendation was to refer the synod requests to the Task Force for ELCA Studies on Sexuality, which is preparing a social statement on human sexuality for action by the 2009 assembly. Amended to direct the task force to recommend changes to any policies that preclude gay and lesbian people in committed relationships from ELCA rosters, the vote to refer passed (819-171).
Voters also referred to the task force a memorial on the blessing of same-sex relationships (733-278).
Short-circuiting? Keeping trust?
Lines remained long at all 12 microphones during discussion periods in four plenary sessions, as dozens of voting members told of their experiences, frustrations and fears on these issues. But much of the debate focused on whether any varying from the decisions of past assemblies—from 2001 on, when the development of the social statement was authorized—would short-circuit the ongoing study process and break trust within the church.
Jon V. Anderson, bishop of the Southwestern Minnesota Synod, said: “I’ve learned that process really matters. I know people who believe we’re going too fast and others who think we’re going too slow. You can get into a ditch both ways. Whatever we decide together will be best built on theological and biblical grounds from the social statement.”
“Finish the process,” urged Timothy A. Whiteman, Northwestern Washington Synod. “I’m concerned that a church that claims to be a Bible church and then selectively ignores passages destroys evangelical integrity. To do an end-run would end our integrity.”
Others felt the church already has discussed these issues too long. “It’s been 18 years—how much longer?” asked Sharon Bost, Southeastern Synod. “My son is loyal to his Lutheran tradition, but he will have to choose between a calling to serve the church and a possible love of a lifelong partner. Why should he have to leave the ELCA to be allowed to serve out his calling to pastoral ministry?”
Explaining her support for rostering pastors in same-sex relationships, Nadine R. Anderson, Northeastern Pennsylvania Synod, said: “We can disagree and still live together faithfully. Remember, the American Lutheran Church passed the ordination of women by only 86 votes.”
Ester A. Johansson-Lebron, New Jersey Synod, served on the memorials committee. “I voted against the referrals then, and I will now,” she said. “I have two pastors for parents. I love how the church is an advocate for social change. ... If the church doesn’t advance justice, fairness and love, who will?”
Larry M. Cantu, West Virginia-Western Maryland Synod, voiced an opposite opinion. “This is not a justice issue,” he said, adding that as the son of a Mexican immigrant he has worked for justice all his life. “It’s still a biblical issue, and I can’t find a blessing from God for relationships of same-sex people.”
“Some people say that if the church becomes radically inclusive, we will alienate people of color,” said Allison Guttu, Metropolitan New York Synod. “But there is not a uniform African American position or West African position. ... If anything, people of color are alienated when we see exclusion, not inclusion.”
And after the decisions
“Our synod has been Reconciled in Christ [welcoming of gay and lesbians] since the beginning of this church. It was one who brought these memorials to the assembly. But I want us to think about the two questions that are before us: The first is the decision we’ll make here. But the second is how to make it so a reception of it will have the best chance of success. If we abort the process, then people will not trust us,” said Theodore Schneider, bishop of the Metropolitan Washington, D.C., Synod.
For some voting members, however, the issue of trust focused already on synodical bishops who led challenges to the memorials committee’s recommendations. In the closing minutes of the assembly, David P. Gleason, Southwestern Pennsylvania Synod, said: “It seems to me that those who represent the church and its striving for unity should, in fact, follow those adopted practices and procedures. I think that it would simply help to clarify for all of us in the church where the lines of accountability lie for our bishops.”
His motion that the synod bishops discuss their accountability and that a statement be brought to the 2009 assembly passed (318-309).
“To those disappointed we didn’t make changes and to those who fear we’re on the way ... talk to each other,” Hanson said.
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