ELCA panel urges church to allow clergy to live in gay, lesbian relationships
In what promises to be a controversial move unprecedented in the history of Lutheranism in the United States, a national task force of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America recommends that the nation's largest Lutheran denomination change its policy and allow homosexual clergy to live in "committed, same-gender relationships."
The report, made public at noon today, is the result of years of study, wrangling and revising of official statements.
According to an ELCA news release, "The report focuses on changing the policy that 'ordained ministers who are homosexual in their self-understanding are expected to abstain from homosexual sexual relationships," - as stated in the ELCA's 'Vision and Expectations,' for ordained ministers."
The task force's recommendations are expected to be voted on by the ELCA's biennial national assembly in mid-August in Minneapolis.
Only one U.S. Christian denomination, the United Church of Christ, has wholly and officially supported clergy living in homosexual relationships. Within the Episcopal and Presbyterian churches it's widely held that, as in the ELCA in recent years, such relationships by clergy have been tacitly allowed in some cases. The ELCA's policy now is that gay and lesbian clergy are expected, as are unmarried heterosexual clergy, to abstain from sexual relationships.
The 15-member task force said it's clear there is not consensus within the 4,9 million member denomination based in Chicago.
The ELCA and its predecessor denominations have long wrestled with issues of sexuality and changing societal mores, as have all religious groups. But an official recommendation to allow pastors to live in homosexual relationships is a big step. The other large Lutheran denomination in the United States, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, doesn't have the issue on its radar; whether to allow women to be clergy is more of a current debate within the 2.5-million-member LCMS.
The greater Red River Valley region is the most ELCA prone in the country; about 25 to 30 percent of the population is baptized in the ELCA. North Dakota has 170,000 members; Minnesota about 822,000.
"Through careful listening to this church and to one another, task force members share a sober appreciation for the depth of disagreement on this matter." the Rev Peter Strommen, a pastor in Prior Lake, Minn., who chaired the 15-member task force that was directed by the ELCA's 2007 national convention to study the issue and give recommendations. "We also share a longing for church unity. Our hope is that a way can be found to live in the unity of the gospel amid our differences."
One pastor told the Herald that some clergy have said they would leave the ELCA if the policy prohibiting sexual relationships outside of marriage was changed.
Others welcome the change and have worked for it.
The Rev. Mary Albing, a former Grand Forks pastor, came out as a lesbian several years ago, entering a relationship with another woman from Grand Forks and has been serving a Twin Cities congregation. In a book several years ago, Albing wrote of the difficulty of being called as a Lutheran pastor and also being homosexual but not being allowed, officially, to serve as a minister.
The task force's recommendations include asking the churchwide assembly in August if "it is committed to finding ways to allow congregations and synods that choose to do so to recognize, support and hold publicly accountable lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships," according to the news release's account of the report.
This oft-called "local option," allowing congregations or regional synods to decide the issue on their own has been criticized by those opposing change as a violation of ELCA traditions and an irresponsible way to handle such a controversial subject.
Supporters of such "local options," see it as a way to keep the ELCA together despite wide differences over the issue. The sensibility of ELCA congregations in, say, San Franscisco, is understandably very different from that of ELCA congregations in, say, western South Dakota, the argument goes.
The task force says a second step would be asking the hundreds of delegates at the assembly "whether it is committed to finding a way for Lutherans in committed, same-gender relationshps to serve as ELCA professional leaders - clergy, associates in minisry, diaconal ministers and deaconesses."
The task force also released today a larger document, a proposed social statement on sexuality, also to be presented for a vote at the national assembly.
Both documents can be seen online at www.elca.org/faithfuljourney.