ELCA Bishops Respond to Study on Homosexuality

The bishops of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) released a statement of response to the denomination’s three-year study on homosexuality, during their four-day meeting in Chicago, March 3-7, 2005. However the response, similar to the controversial study, found no conclusive voice on the contentious issue that has been testing the unity of the church for years.

“As a Conference of Bishops we have not been of one mind on these matters, and we are not of one mind on these matters now,” the page-long response began.

The ELCA Conference of Bishops, which consists of the denomination’s 65 synod bishops, presiding bishop and secretary, is an advisory body of the church and does not have the final say in what recommendations and resolutions are passed. Nonetheless, as some of the highest-ranking members of the church, their voices and views carry significant weight in all issues pertinent to the 5-million-member organization.

In essence, the Conference of Bishops said they agreed with the first two recommendations of the homosexuality study, but were unsure where to stand on the last and most controversial part of the study.

“We urge this church to affirm recommendation one of the task force,” the bishops wrote. “We further ask that with respect to recommendation two, this church affirm for pastoral guidance the 1993 Statement of the Conference of Bishops.”

The first two recommendations of the sexuality study essentially called for no change to the denomination’s overall belief that neither the ordination of active homosexual individuals nor the blessing of homosexual unions should be sanctioned by the church.

Specifically, the two statements recommended the church “continue to respect the pastoral guidance of the 1993 statement of the Conference of Bishops regarding the blessing of homosexual relationships” and “continue under the standards regarding sexual conduct for rostered leaders as set forth in “Visions and Expectations” and “Definitions and Guidelines for Discipline.”

The 1993 statement of the Conference of Bishops states that clergy should not bless homosexual unions within the church since there is a "basis neither in Scripture nor tradition for the establishment of an official ceremony by this church for the blessing of a homosexual relationship." It also said it did "not approve such a ceremony as an official action of this church's ministry.”

ELCA “Visions and Expectations” spells out the standards and rules of conduct for denomination’s rostered clergy. One of the clauses in the Visions and Expectations states that clergy – both heterosexual and homosexual – are expected to refrain from extra-marital sexual relationships. Marriage is defined as a union between one man and one woman only, and the standard further explains “ordained and commissioned ministers who are homosexual in their self-understanding are expected to abstain from homosexual sexual relationships." The Definitions and Guidelines for Discipline explains what forms of punishment is suitable for clergy who step out of the boundaries of the Visions and Expectations

However, in regards to the study’s third – and most controversial – recommendation, the bishops said they are “unable to offer a definitive word of advice.”

Recommendation three essentially says that while the church should follow the first two recommendations, members who violate the laws on homosexuality can be excused from punishment.

“This church may choose to refrain from disciplining those who in good conscience, and for the sake of outreach, ministry and the commitment to continuing dialogue, call or approve partnered gay or lesbian candidates whom they believe to be otherwise in compliance with "Vision and Expectations" and to refrain from disciplining those rostered people so approved and called,” the study, released in January 2005, stated.

The third recommendation has already been rejected by dozens of ELCA scholars, theologians, and leaders. Conservative organizations in the denomination have even called for the flat-out rejection of the entire report because of the third recommendation.

“Looks like a duck, waddles like a duck, quacks like a duck, must be a duck. How stupid do they think we are?” said Pastor Mark Chavez., director of the WordAlone Network – the largest renewal and reformed movement in the denomination.

The bishops, meanwhile, similar to the report itself, were ambivalent on the third point:

“We acknowledge that as a conference we are unable to offer a definitive word of advice on recommendation three,” the bishops’ March 7 statement read. “Some bishops are convinced there should be no change in the practice and policy of our church. Other bishops favor changes both in policy and in practice though there is no consensus as to how such changes should take place.”

Despite the obvious differences and without coming to a clear consensus, the bishops ultimately advised the church to remain in unity.

“Humbly we offer this advice and counsel: Unite in prayer that God would guide us in this time of discernment and decision making; Unite in reading Scripture together; Unite in weekly worship to be nourished by Word and Sacrament; Unite in practicing forgiveness…” the bishops wrote.

According to ELCA news, the one-page message was intended to advise the boards of the ELCA Division for Church in Society, ELCA Division for Ministry, and the ELCA Church Council, as each considers what to do with the task force report and recommendations on homosexuality. The report and its recommendations, along with proposals on how to consider the issues, will make their way to the 2005 ELCA Churchwide Assembly, Aug. 8-14, in Orlando, Fla., where the decision on whether to accept or reject the study will be made.