Though the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) decided last month to adopt policies that disregard the long-standing – not to mention biblical – understanding of homosexuality as sin, the church body's leader is urging his flock to continue the conversation on this topic and others.
"I opened our recent Churchwide Assembly with these questions: 'What shall be our witness?' 'What stories shall we tell?'" noted ELCA's presiding bishop, the Rev. Mark S. Hanson, in a video message posted on the newly launched "Our Faithful Mission Together" section of the denomination's website. "Those questions remain before us."
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.
"The church left the Great Tradition of moral teaching to identify with the United Church of Christ and the Episcopal Church," remarked Robert Benne of Christianity Today magazine, referring to two other mainline Protestant denominations that have made moves similar to ELCA's.
Despite what others have been saying, Hanson said in his message Friday that the denomination's Churchwide Assembly last month made clear that ELCA is "a church that finds our unity and our center in worship around the means of grace."
"We are a church committed to congregations being vital, growing centers of evangelical mission. We are a church that believes every member is sent to do God's work with their hands. We are a church willing to engage in difficult conversations that sometimes reveal our differences – conversations that I invite you to continue to have," he stated.
But Hanson emphasized the conversations should not be limited to human sexuality, but to be about how their congregation can "grow as an evangelical center for mission, how you can do in your daily life God's work with your hands, how we can stay connected as we together give our answer to these questions: 'What shall be our witness?' 'What stories shall we tell?'"
"For the story we tell is the story of God's love for the whole world in Jesus Christ. What 'Good News' we have to share," Hanson concluded.
With 4.7 million members, ELCA is the largest Lutheran church body in the United States and the fourth largest Protestant body.
Hanson, who is currently serving a second six-year terms as ELCA's presiding bishop, was elected in August 2001 to serve as president and chief executive officer of the organization and oversees the staff, budget, and overall administration of the church.
He has also been serving as president of the Lutheran World Federation following his election in July 2003.