The head of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) said this week that he has "deep confidence" that the unity within the nation's largest Lutheran denomination will not be lost amid concerns that a "church-dividing decision" might result from next month's churchwide assembly.
Furthermore, unity will not be won or lost at the 2009 ELCA Churchwide Assembly in a plenary session vote, clarified ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark S. Hanson ahead of the Aug. 17-23 gathering in Minneapolis.
"Sometimes, when I hear concerns about division in the ELCA, I worry that they express a fear that unity depends on the actions of church leaders or assemblies," Hanson expressed in a statement. "Our unity, however, comes to us because God gives it freely and undeservedly in Jesus Christ.
"The unity of Christ's church is God's daily work through the Holy Spirit calling, gathering, enlightening and sanctifying us with the gospel," he added.
Like a number of denominations, ELCA has been wracked by issues surrounding homosexuality, which has become one of the most hotly debated issues in secular society and the Church today.
And next month, ELCA 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 this past May 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, Hanson has 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.
In his latest message, dated Tuesday, Hanson again urged for a stronger push toward unity from the grassroots – unity within the denomination and also with other Christians throughout the world.
"Rather than approach the assembly apprehensively, I invite you to see it as an opportunity for faith-filled witness to the larger human family that struggles with division and yearns for healing and wholeness that is real and true," the presiding bishop stated.
"We live in a polarized culture that equates unity with uniformity and sees differences as a reason for division. This moment, and our witness as a church body in the midst of it, deserves something better from us," Hanson continued.
"We have the opportunity to offer the witness of our unity in Christ─diverse, filled with different-ness and differences, broken in sin, and yet united and whole in Christ. This moment deserves the witness of a community that finds and trusts its unity in Christ alone, engages one another with respect, and seeks a communal discernment of the Spirit's leading," 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 at next month's churchwide assembly will consider various churchwide program proposals, conduct elections and consider memorials and resolutions.
The ELCA Churchwide Assembly is held once every two years.