The head of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) is asking for members of the nation's largest Lutheran body to devote more time to prayer and the study of Scripture over the 50 days leading up to its 2009 assembly.
The ELCA Churchwide Assembly, which convenes every two years, is the denomination's highest legislative authority and is scheduled to meet in Minneapolis starting Aug. 17.
This year's gathering will be particularly significant as the denomination is expected to adopt its first statement on human sexuality based on proposals that conservative Lutherans have rejected as ones that would liberalize the denomination's stance on homosexuality.
Earlier this year, the Task Force for ELCA Studies on Sexuality released a long-awaited report acknowledging that there is neither a consensus nor an emerging one in the denomination on homosexuality. At the same time, the task force recommended that individual congregations be allowed to choose whether to allow gays and lesbians in committed relationships to be ordained.
Currently, the ELCA allows the ordination of gays and lesbians if they remain celibate.
"They (the proposals) clearly imply that same-sex blessings and the ordination and rostering of homosexual persons in committed relationships are acceptable within the ELCA," noted a conservative group of Lutheran scholars and church leaders in a letter cautioning voting members against changing the denomination's current position on same-sex blessings and the ordination of partnered gays.
"The teaching of the church will be changed," warned the letter mailed last month to the assembly's 1,045 voting members. "We should not make such an important decision without clear biblical and theological support."
As the sexuality issue has created significant rifts in other denominations and also put a strain on ELCA, the Rev. Mark S. Hanson, ELCA's presiding bishop, encouraged all members – those attending the assembly and those not attending – to take part in "50 Days of Prayer" to give public witness that ELCA is a church united in evangelical mission for the sake of the world.
"Even when we are not of one mind about all the matters to be decided by the assembly, we have a marvelous opportunity as a church body to witness to the common source of our hope," stated Hanson in an announcement Monday.
"I invite your prayers for the sake of that mission and the work of the churchwide assembly," he added.
With 4.7 million members, ELCA is the largest Lutheran church body in the United States and the fourth largest Protestant body.
Aside from acting on a proposed social statement on human sexuality and a recommendation on ministry policies, ELCA voting members will consider various churchwide program proposals, conduct elections and consider memorials and resolutions.
The 50-day countdown to the 2009 ELCA Churchwide Assembly officially begins next Monday and is accompanied by resources at www.ELCA.org/50days.
Throughout the 50 days, members are being asked to pray daily; meet in weekly groups, use daily Scripture readings for reflection, hymn and prayer, and use suggested petitions for prayers during worship.