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April 1, 2009

ELCA Council transmits social statement, report and recommendation

 
The Church Council of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America sent "Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust," a proposed social statement for the ELCA, and a "Report and Recommendation on Ministry Policies" to the 2009 ELCA Churchwide Assembly for consideration.

The Church Council is the ELCA's board of directors and serves as the legislative authority of the church between assemblies. The council met here March 27-30. Assemblies are held every other year; the next is Aug. 17-23 in Minneapolis.

On Feb. 19 the Task Force for ELCA Studies on Sexuality released the two documents. "Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust" addresses a spectrum of concerns relevant to human sexuality from a Lutheran perspective. If adopted by the assembly, the social statement will assist this church in its moral deliberation, govern the ELCA's institutional policies and guide the church's advocacy work.

The council made a series of "friendly amendments" to clarify the proposed social statement, but no substantive changes to content. It also approved resolutions to implement the statement into the mission and ministry of the church.

Prior to taking action, the council met in small groups in a closed, off-the-record session. There was no discussion prior to the vote on sending the document to the churchwide assembly. Once that action took place, the council stood and applauded.

"What a gift the task force has been to the church and what the task force has given to the church," said Norma J. Hirsch, council member, Des Moines, Iowa. "Some have said that the work is brilliant, however (one) perceives the document," she said.

Report and Recommendation on Ministry Policies

The task force also released a report and recommendation for a process to consider changes to ministry policies that could make it possible for Lutherans in committed same-gender relationships to serve as ELCA professional leaders -- associates in ministry, deaconesses, diaconal ministers and ordained ministers.

The task force proposed four steps to be taken consecutively by the churchwide assembly. If the assembly agrees to the first, then the second, third and fourth would be considered only if the preceding steps have been approved.

The council's actions on the recommendation reflected this process. It approved each of the four resolutions individually and made amendments for clarification purposes, keeping the intent of the task force. Prior to taking action, the council met in small groups in a closed, off-the-record session.

The first resolve asks that the ELCA commit itself "to finding ways to allow congregations that choose to do so to recognize, support and hold publicly accountable lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships."

The second resolve asks that the church commit itself "to finding a way for people in such publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships to serve as rostered leaders of this church."

Step three asks that in the implementation of these resolutions, the ELCA "respects the bound conscience of all."

Resolution four presents a proposal for how the ELCA could move toward change "in a way that respects the bound conscience of all." This step makes a specific recommendation for flexibility within existing structures and practices of this church to allow for people in publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships to be approved for professional service in the ELCA.

Speaking to the council about resolution four, Stanley N. Olson, executive director, ELCA Vocation and Education, said the point of the fourth resolve is "to incorporate structured flexibility into this church's present policies and procedures, eliminating the uniform prohibition against rostering people in same-gender relationships, but not changing the system's assignment of authority and responsibility."

Olson said structured flexibility is a "shorthand phrase intended to describe the way the ELCA already does candidacy and call."

He said "public accountability" for same-gender relationships "would be taken into consideration by those who presently have decision-making responsibility in candidacy and call."

William R. Lloyd, council member, Somerset, Pa., said he wished it were possible to have a "primer" about the ELCA's candidacy and call process.

With the exception of pastors, "most of us do not understand" the candidacy and call process, he said. "I think it would be fair to say that most people at the churchwide assembly are not going to understand it," Lloyd said. He expressed concern that people will make decisions without having an understanding "of how things work now."

Jonathan W. Linman, council member, New York, said it would also be helpful to have some narrative or clarification on what is meant by bound conscience.

After approving the four resolutions, the council expressed its gratitude to members of task force for their "dedicated and conscientious service to this church." It commended the task force for "modeling what it means to journey together faithfully."

In a separate action, the council voted to uphold its November decision recommending that the 2009 assembly rules require a simple majority to adopt recommendations, resolutions, memorials or any other motions originating from, or relating to the subject of a task force report.

The task force's "Report and Recommendation on Ministry Policies" and "Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust" are available on the ELCA Web site.

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