The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America delayed further talks on whether to ordain non-celibate homosexual clergy after two days of emotional debate.
While supporters of gay and lesbian clergy in committed relationships are calling for a decision now during ELCA's Churchwide Assembly, particularly to lift the current ban that's in place, opponents say a sudden decision could be risky.
"Throughout 18 years, this church has chosen not to make decisions on separate and particular elements of sexuality," said Bishop Gregory Pile of the Allegheny Synod, according to The Chicago Tribune. "It has continued to call for a broad and thorough conversation leading up to a proposed statement in 2009."
With discussion on gay ordination scheduled to continue on Friday, voting members of the nation's largest Lutheran denomination decided on Thursday to refer memorials on the blessing of same-sex unions to the Task Force for ELCA Studies on Sexuality. The church task force is charged with drafting a social statement about human sexuality by 2009.
"I don't believe that a 'yes' or 'no' at this Assembly will be helpful to us when so many in our church are expecting a social statement of some sort in 2009," said the Rev. Leonard H. Bolick, bishop of the North Carolina Synod, according to the ELCA News Service. "That social statement, it seems to me, would be very helpful in guiding conversation, in explaining what we have done, a spring board for our deliberations."
After voting in 2005 to maintain its ban against non-celibate gay and lesbian clergy, the issue was not expected to be debated again until the social statement was concocted in 2009. The statement is to be based on a comprehensive study that collected responses from congregants across the denomination since 2001.
A third of the ELCA's regional governing bodies, or synods, have pushed for a proposal this year that would permit gay and lesbian clergy in committed relationships to serve congregations. But conservatives argue that a decision preceding the social statement would be premature.
Earlier at the biennial churchwide assembly, which is being held in Chicago, more than 80 lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered Lutheran ministers "came out," declaring their sexuality on Tuesday. Most of the pastors, some of whom were removed from the roster, have been open with their congregations about their sexuality.
"The courage of these 82 ministers is amazing," said Emily Eastwood, executive director of Lutherans Concerned in North America, a ministry that works for the full inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Lutherans in all aspects of the life of their Church and congregations. "They are all well aware of the risks they take in introducing themselves and their families to the wider church. For those who are rostered leaders in the ELCA, they risk discipline from their bishops, discipline which may include formal ecclesiastical charges, a trial and ultimate removal."
The Rev. Bradley Schmeling, an Atlanta pastor who was removed from the church roster last month after announcing that he found a lifelong partner, was among the 82 protesting the current ELCA policy that requires LGBT ministers to remain celibate.
On Thursday, Schmeling and hundreds of other gay-rights advocates held a separate service at a nearby hotel in hopes of a decision that night that would lift the ban. The stalled debate disappointed the gay-rights crowd, according to The Chicago Tribune.
A motion Thursday to continue debate on the homosexuality issue for the rest of the night and postpone items on the agenda that were scheduled was not approved by a two-thirds majority and discussion was discontinued until Friday.