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Votes on gay clergy fuel further controversy for US Lutherans


For years, the largest Lutheran denomination in the United States has avoided some of the rancour over the issue of same-sex relationships that has divided the Episcopal (Anglican) Church and, to a lesser extent, the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the United Methodist Church.

Yet, given two very different decisions by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America at its 2007 assembly, held from 6 to 11 August in Chicago, that could change.

The assembly voted on 10 August not to overturn the 4.8-million-member denomination’s rules that bar the ordination of non-celibate homosexual clergy.

But the assembly also approved a resolution, a day later, that discourages bishops from disciplining gay clergy in committed relationships. That resolution was prompted in part by the case of an Atlanta, Georgia, ELCA pastor who faced disciplinary action earlier in 2007, after he informed his bishop of his relationship with his male partner.

Some church members believe that following the two votes, as well as the existence of more than 80 ELCA clergy and seminarians who have publicly declared their homosexuality, the denomination is likely to confront the issue of human sexuality during its next scheduled assembly in 2009 in Minneapolis. Then, the gathering is expected to debate a denominational statement being prepared on the topic.

Proponents of a change in rules for homosexual clergy welcomed the directive about the disciplining of gay clergy as a major victory, but called the assembly’s action an interim move.

"Full inclusion and acceptance is still down the road, but the dam of discrimination has been broken," said Emily Eastwood, the executive director of Lutherans Concerned/North America, an advocacy group for homosexual rights. "With this decision, the voting members signalled a desire for policy change, but the need for two more years to bring more of the church along."

Another group, Lutheran CORE, that opposes giving homosexuals in the church more rights, called the two votes an example of shutting "the front door for now on allowing ministers in same-sex relationships to serve the denomination," but then telling "them to go to the back door and come in".

Jaynan Clark Egland, head of the WordAlone Network, said in a statement, "I don’t know as a Christian, as a pastor and as a parent what really would be worse – a church with no Biblical standards to govern our ministry, or standards we don’t intend to enforce. To refrain from discipline in the home is bad parenting, but we’re about to do so in Christ’s Church."

Mark S. Hanson, who the assembly re-elected for another six-year term as ELCA presiding bishop, was quoted by the church’s news service as saying, "They are not words that change the standards of the church. They reflect the mind of this assembly as it seeks to give counsel to the leaders of the church."

(c) Ecumenical News International