The task force of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) Studies on Sexuality held their last scheduled meeting before the January 13, 2005 due date on the report, Dec. 10-12, 2004.
The studies on sexuality, which was commissioned three years ago, tackles two critical questions in the 2-million member denomination: Should the ELCA bless same-gender relationships? Should practicing homosexuals be eligible for ordainment?
These questions come at a time of heightened tension within nearly all mainline denomination over the issue of homosexuality. The United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church (USA) are just two of the old-line denominations that began studies on sexuality similar to that undertaken by the ELCA and the Anglican Church.
According to a Dec. 15 report by the ELCA news service, the task force made significant decisions during their most recent meeting regarding the recommendations it will make early next year. These recommendations will be accompanied by a report on the task forces past activities, including the communications the group received from individuals and churches throughout its study.
Since the task force first met in May 2002, it developed two studies that provoked more than 28,000 responses from churches and congregants. The studies, entitled, Journey Together Faithfully Part One and Two were meant to help stir the debate on homosexuality at the local level.
According to Rev. James M. Childs Jr., director of the ELCA Studies on Sexuality, the report is meant to be an honest reflection of the various beliefs and positions held by ELCA members.
"We are committed to making an honest report," Childs said to ELCA news. "This report will reflect what we have heard from the church and how we have related to one another on specific items.
"The task force has, since its beginning, represented a spectrum of the views one can hear from within our church," Childs continued. "They [the members] have been very forthright and with great integrity able to share those views in our discussions over the years. That has not stopped.
"Despite their diverse viewpoints they are united by a common commitment to be servants of the church and its gospel mission," he said. "We can be proud of our task force for the manner in which they dealt in good faith with one another and in good faith concern for the well-being of the church, as this report goes into its final stages."
"The report will, of course, have to reflect how our work together as the task force, in dialogue with the responses of the church and in prayerful beseeching of the Holy Spirit through the Word, developed the rationale which surrounds the recommendations we make," Childs said.
Meanwhile, Rev. Margaret G. Payne, chair of the 14-member task force and bishop of the ELCA New England Synod, Worcester, Mass, told ELCA news that while many things were decided, there are other parts that have yet to be determined.
"Although many things were decided this weekend, the task is not yet fully completed, said Payne. "We will be in further communication with one another. I think it would betray the confidence of the task force to speak about what is not yet finally determined, but it will be very clear when the report comes out.
Payne said the goal of the report and recommendations is to provide a model for how wider communities in the church also can begin to think of themselves as servants of the gospel, talking in faith with one another despite differing opinions, exploring Scripture and theology together."
"The amount of information that we've received and worked with over these three years has been enormous," Payne said to the ELCA news.
Task force members reviewed all the information and "want it to be clear that all of the study and work was done under Scripture and in reference to God's Word and the theology of the Lutheran church and Confessions and tradition. They hope that people will see evidence of how we've thought and struggled together with differing understandings and beliefs on the issues," she said.
Many ELCA members have been watching closely at the Studies on Sexuality, especially in recent months because of the rising number of congregations hiring homosexual pastors not on the ELCA clergy roster.
The current ELCA policy says ministers both homosexual and heterosexual should refrain from sexual relations outside of marriage. Specifically, the ELCA calls marriage a lifelong covenant of faithfulness between a man and a woman .
While the church has no official policy statement on the blessing of homosexual unions, the 1993 ELCA Conference of Bishops stated it does not approve of such ceremonies.
The task force report and recommendations will be released to the public on January 13, noontime (EST). ELCA leaders, however, will receive a preview of the report on January 12. The ELCAs 10,657 congregations will be given a chance to study and respond to the report through March when the ELCA Conference of Bishops is scheduled to meet.
At the same time, the boards of the ELCA Division for Church and Society and the ELCA Division for Ministry will meet to review the recommendations, and will forward them to the ELCAs Church Council the denominations board of directors and legislative authority between biennial churchwide assemblies. The council will meet in Chicago from April 8-11 to review the report and will prepare a resolution so the 2005 Churchwide Assembly could either accept or decline the proposal.
Information about the Studies on Sexuality is at http://www.elca.org/faithfuljourney/ on the ELCA Web site.