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The first skirmish of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's churchwide assembly was won Monday night by those advocating for the acceptance of gay and lesbian clergy, but people on all sides of the issue said that there still is much arguing to come.
The ELCA's weeklong meeting at the Minneapolis Convention Center eventually will consider a proposal to repeal a ban on gay and lesbian ministers from leading churches unless they promise to remain celibate. At issue in the first plenary session Monday night was a push by opponents to have the vote on that matter changed from a simple majority to a two-thirds supermajority.
The motion was rejected by 57 percent of the voters, but supporters of the gay clergy proposal warned against reading too much into the result. This was a parliamentary issue, not a vote on gay rights, said Emily Eastwood, executive director of St. Paul-based Lutherans Concerned/North America, a group that supports the change in rules.
"Most of the representatives are able to make a distinction between the voting procedure and the clergy issue," she said.
In a news conference before the opening of the assembly, Bishop Mark Hanson agreed that the evening's vote "might provide something of a landscape but shouldn't be considered a predictor of what is to come."
One thing he knows is coming: By the end of the week there are going to be some ELCA members who are "deeply and profoundly disappointed" by the vote on the clergy issue.
"Do I expect that reaction?" he asked rhetorically. "The answer is: Yes. But the bigger question is what form that disappointment is going to take, and that is a conversation that I am committed to have and keep having as long as necessary."
A similar issue threatens to divide the U.S. Episcopal Church, something that Hanson, the Minneapolis native who leads the ELCA, is determined to avoid.
"We begin this week in a spirit of confident hope," that various factions within the ELCA can agree to disagree, he said.
Hanson has refused to reveal his personal stance on the issue, a position he reiterated at the press conference, saying that he doesn't want his advocacy for one side or the other to create the impression that he doesn't support the outcome of the vote.
"I will still be leading this church on Saturday, and I will be leading it on the basis of what has been decided," he said. "My role, as I see it, is to shepherd the process so it is clear [from a procedural standpoint], no one feels anxious or marginalized, and everyone participates."
The gay clergy issue is not the only important matter on the agenda, or the only controversial one. Also up for discussion is a social statement on human sexuality that confirms the ELCA's definition of marriage as being between a man and a woman, but acknowledges the legitimacy of long-term, monogamous, same-sex relationships.
Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392