New church homosexuality debate
Voting member Janet Metcalfe, of Inver Grove Heights, Minn., pauses for a moment of prayer with other members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America yesterday after a tornado warning was announced at the Minneapolis Convention Center.
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The largest U.S. Lutheran denomination opened debate this week about a proposal to allow practicing gays and lesbians to serve in the clergy.
Leaders of the 4.6 million-member Evangelical Lutheran Church in America are expected to decide during their weeklong Churchwide Assembly in Minneapolis whether to alter their existing policy, which requires gays and lesbians in ministry to remain celibate.
Similar efforts to change that policy have failed five times over the past 12 years, according to church analysts.
The governing body's 1,045 voting members also will consider a long-anticipated social statement on human sexuality that, among other things, says Christian tradition recognizes marriage as a covenant between a man and a woman. Such statements are intended to guide church policy. Heterosexual clergy are allowed to have sex within marriage.
Presiding Bishop Mark S. Hanson on Monday dismissed suggestions that the clergy measure could lead to a schism, saying the unfolding discussions had prompted "very thoughtful engagements" in a church that has long struggled to reconcile the role of practicing gays and lesbians with biblical authority.
"I do not believe that human sexuality for us as Lutherans defines the church," Bishop Hanson said at a news conference in Minneapolis that was broadcast live on the denomination's Web site. "Therefore, human sexuality should not be the occasion to divide the church."
The deliberations come one month after leaders of the 2.1 million-member Episcopal Church, meeting in Anaheim, Calif., lifted a de facto ban on gay bishops and agreed to consider marriage liturgies for same-sex unions.
Advocates for change in the Lutheran denomination have argued that the church has a responsibility to accept all members equally. They note that the new policy would be voluntary.
But those who favor traditional Lutheran positions on marriage have said the proposed policy reflects cultural norms, not the word of God. They say a liberalized approach would drive away conservative Lutherans and undermine ecumenical relations with other Christian denominations.
If the assembly's decision does provoke a Lutheran schism, the Pittsburgh region may be fertile ground for a conservative breakaway group.
Over the past decade or so, three congregations left the theologically conservative Southwestern Pennsylvania Synod because they believed that the national church was already too liberal on sexuality and other issues. The 10-county synod has 85,000 members in 201 congregations.
In June, the Southwestern Pennsylvania Synod registered its disapproval of both the proposed ordination changes and the accompanying social statement. During their annual assembly, at least 90 percent of about 350 delegates voted to ask the Churchwide Assembly to reject local option on gay ordination. The vote on the social statement was closer, 219-123, but still asked the national church to uphold existing teaching on sexuality.
Bishop Kurt Kusserow of Southwestern Pennsylvania believes that having different ordination standards in different places is antithetical to what it means to be a church.
First Published August 20, 2009 12:00 am