The head of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is urging leaders within the denomination to refrain from making decisions that may separate members from one another in the aftermath of the contentious outcomes of last month's churchwide assembly.
ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark S. Hanson is urging them instead to "engage one another with honesty and respect in renewed and deepened theological conversation informed by an evangelical, missional imagination."
"My heart aches as I listen to the pain and distress of those who feel confused or even abandoned by others, not only in the decisions of the churchwide assembly but also in the decisions that are being made in congregations and by individuals," the Lutheran head wrote in a letter Wednesday to leaders within the denomination.
Last month, during the triennial gathering of ELCA's chief legislative body, delegates voted 559-451 to approve a resolution allowing gays and lesbians in "life-long, monogamous, same gender relationships" to be ordained.
Delegates also adopted a new social statement on human sexuality with exactly the number of votes (676 or two-thirds) needed to pass it. The statement, which emphasizes two principles – trust and bound conscience – addresses a spectrum of topics relevant to human sexuality, including social structures, cohabitation, sexual exploitation, abuse, and homosexuality.
Since the gathering, the largest Lutheran body in America has sparked a flurry of remarks from across denominational lines, including criticisms from other U.S. Lutheran bodies and the United Methodist Church, which last year approved a full communion with ELCA.
Some congregations, meanwhile, have been considering parting ways with ELCA as many feel the denomination is abandoning the authority of Scripture. A few have already started the process.
"I am disappointed that some are encouraging congregations and members to take actions that will diminish our capacity for ministry," Hanson stated Wednesday.
To the leaders of those flocks, Hanson asked for the "bearing one another's burdens in continued conversation" and "the long-suffering patience that frees us to remain together in mission."
"Our attentive listening to one another and patient waiting for the Spirit's work in these conversations will be a powerful witness," Hanson added.
During his opening sermon and oral report to the churchwide assembly last month in Minneapolis, Hanson asked "What shall be our witness? What story shall we tell?"
In his letter Wednesday, the presiding bishop said he believes those questions remain central to ELCA and expressed his hope that ongoing conversations be marked by the signs of a church that lives in faith, hope, and love.
He concluded by recalling the reflection he gave at the end of last month's assembly.
"We finally meet one another not in our agreements or disagreements, but at the foot of the cross, where God is faithful, where Christ is present with us, and where, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we are one in Christ," Hanson had stated.
And it is this conviction, he added Wednesday, "that sustains me in my leadership and gives me confident hope."
With 4.7 million members, ELCA is the largest Lutheran church body in the United States and the fourth largest Protestant body.