ELCA leaves gay clergy decision to local churches

  • Article by: JEFF STRICKLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 21, 2009 - 8:54 AM

Unable to agree, a task force will submit to the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America a proposal to leave ordination of gays up to congregations and synods.

The long-awaited position on ordaining gay clergy in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America isn't a clear yes or no.

An ELCA task force admitted Thursday that it could not reach a consensus on the issue that has polarized its members for years. But with the matter expected to dominate this summer's national convention in Minneapolis, its position paper offers this suggested solution:

The ELCA will allow the ordination of gay pastors but will leave it up to individual congregations and synods whether to ordain or appoint pastors. The term used to describe this compromise is "structured flexibility."

While acknowledging that such an intentionally vague policy probably won't play well with "the bumper sticker crowd," the bishop of the St. Paul Area Synod, the Rev. Peter Rogness, said it reflects the ELCA's practice of trying to match ministers to congregations. He compared it to a rural congregation feeling that it would rather call a minister with a rural background, for instance.

"The Lutheran Church has never imposed anything on anyone," he said. "We never have, and we never will."

Leaders of Lutheran CORE (Coalition for Reform), a group that describes its mission as seeking "to preserve the authority of the Bible in the ELCA," quickly announced that it will work to defeat the proposal at the convention.

The Rev. Scott Grorud, pastor of Faith Lutheran Church in Hutchinson and a member of the organization's steering committee, said the focus on trying to reach a consensus was misdirected.

"The history of Christianity is not based on trying to reach a consensus; it's based on distinguishing right from wrong," he said. Consensus-building is used for deciding things like "what color carpet to get. This is a recipe for disaster."

He pointed to a similar rift that threatens to split the Episcopal Church into two factions. "They went to a local option, and look where it got them," he said. "That should not be the path that we want to follow."

On the other end of the political spectrum, St. Paul-based Lutherans Concerned saluted the recommendations as a positive step but said the task force didn't go far enough.

"It's a vast improvement," said spokesman Phil Soucy. "But we still have profound differences with it overall."

In particular, the group would have liked to have seen a provision for a rite blessing same-sex relationships. "The paper is full of options," he said. "How about an optional rite -- you don't have to use it, but it would be there."

Delegates already picked

The ELCA has 4.8 million members, about 830,000 of which are in Minnesota. One-third of the 1,000 delegates who will gather in Minneapolis Aug. 17-23 will be clergy, and the rest will be lay people. The delegates were chosen last summer, so there will be no jockeying to pick those who support a particular stance on this issue.

The position paper on gay ordination was accompanied by the release of a final version of a social statement that also will be submitted to the convention and contains a potential land mine of its own.

The statement affirms the ELCA's longtime definition of marriage as "a covenant between a man and a woman" but goes on to acknowledge the validity of "lifelong, monogamous same-gender relationships." No one is using the term "gay marriage," noting that marriage is a legal designation determined by the state, but the implication is clear.

"We feel it is very important that we ask homosexual ministers to be publicly accountable for their relationships the same way we ask heterosexual ministers to be publicly accountable," said the Rev. Peter Strommen, the chairman of the task force and pastor at Shepherd of the Lake Lutheran Church in Prior Lake.

Thus, one of the major caveats for gay ordination is whether the candidate is involved in a committed relationship.

"That term 'publicly accountable' is a new one for us," said the Rev. Craig Johnson, bishop of the Minneapolis Area Synod. "Another term the position paper introduces is 'conscience bound.' It says that the differences [of opinion on gay ordination] are rooted in deeply held, conscience-bound beliefs that must be respected by people on both sides. It takes into account that there are faithful people on both sides of the issue, and it gives both sides some space to affirm their ministries."

A slap on current policy

The task force recommendation chastises the ELCA for its "all-too frequent failure to live out its publicly declared welcome" in the case of homosexuals and noted that "many gay and lesbian Christians have experienced this church's positions and policy as painful personal rejection."

The current policy that bans gay clergy works against the church, too, Johnson added. "On a synod level, we're missing a chance to utilize some great skills that are out there," he said.

If the convention rejects the task force recommendations, it's not clear what would happen next, said the Rev. Stan Olson, a former bishop of the Southwestern Minnesota Synod and now executive director of the ELCA's Vocation and Education Program Unit. Some people believe that the rejected proposals would go back to the task force for rewriting, but Olson thinks the process might have to start all over again.

"The task force had a charge to bring forth a proposal for the 2009 Churchwide Assembly," he said. "They did that. As far as I can tell, they're done."

Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392

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