Leaders of the country's largest Lutheran denomination have agreed to disagree on homosexuality, endorsing an official statement on human sexuality that says there's room in the church for differing views on an issue that's divided other religious groups.
Delegates to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's nationwide assembly in Minneapolis on Wednesday approved a "social statement on human sexuality." The vote was a prelude to a bigger debate Friday, when delegates will tackle a proposal that would allow individual ELCA congregations to hire people in committed same-sex relationships as clergy. The social statement lays a theological foundation for a liberalized policy on gay clergy, and supporters of the proposal praised Wednesday's vote. "We are encouraged and hopeful that ... this will result in the church's elimination of the current ban on ministers in same gender relationships," said Emily Eastwood, executive director of Lutherans Concerned/North America, a Lutheran gay-advocacy group.
Opponents of the social statement said it ignores clear scriptural direction that homosexuality is a sin. "We are asked to affirm a description of sexuality based on a reality that's shaped not by Scripture but by today's culture," said Curtis Sorbo of Adams, N.D., a convention delegate from the ELCA's Eastern North Dakota Synod. ELCA officials said it shouldn't be assumed that passage of the social statement automatically means the proposal on gay clergy will be approved. "We haven't yet had that debate, and I would not want to conjecture that," said the Rev. Rebecca Larson, an official in the ELCA's headquarters in Chicago.
Still, the social statement passed a higher bar than what will be required to approve the new clergy policy. The social statement, as a foundational document for the church, needed to be approved by a two-thirds supermajority of the 1,045 convention delegates. It got exactly that, passing with 66.67 percent of the vote.
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The new clergy policy needs only a simple majority to pass.
The 34-page social statement actually touches on homosexuality only briefly, and is intended as a sweeping definition of the ELCA's approach to matters of human sexuality. It also sketches out the church's approach to gender, friendship, marriage and children, cohabitation outside marriage, the commercialization of sexuality, and the global sex trade.
But it acknowledges what Larson described as an utter lack of consensus toward homosexuality and same-sex relationships across the ELCA's membership. She said the statement's drafters agreed that such differing views could be accomodated because the homosexuality issue is "not central to our faith," Larson said.
Wednesday's debate was interrupted briefly in the afternoon when severe storms and a possible tornado passed through downtown Minneapolis, damaging the steeple of an ELCA church across the street from the convention center. Delegates were allowed to remain in the convention hall, but a few jokes about God's wrath proved inevitable.
"We trust that the weather is not a commentary on our work," said the Rev. Steven Loy, who was helping oversee the convention.