Evangelical Lutherans opened a churchwide assembly Monday and are slated to again open debate over the controversial issue of gay clergy and same-sex blessings.
The weeklong biennial gathering in Chicago convenes more than 1,000 members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the nation's largest Lutheran denomination, who will confront the issue of human sexuality years earlier than originally planned for.
The ELCA will continue its conversation on human sexuality and "the place of gay and lesbian people in ministry" although "we are still in the process of developing our social statement on human sexuality," ELCA presiding bishop the Rev. Mark S. Hanson said on Monday, according to the ELCA News Service.
In 2005, the ELCA Churchwide Assembly had voted in favor of maintaining its noncelibate gay and lesbian clergy ban. The issue was not expected to be debated again until a proposed statement on human sexuality was formed in 2009. Hanson stressed that the statement will be concocted on the basis of responses from lay people which were given in a comprehensive study that was conducted across the 4.8 million-member denomination between 2001 and 2006.
"They didn't get their way in 2005, and now they want to throw it back at us," said the Rev. Mark Chavez, director of Word Alone Network, a Lutheran group that contends homosexuality violates Scripture, according to The Chicago Tribune.
A third of the ELCA's regional governing bodies, or synods, have pushed to place the homosexuality issue on the 2007 agenda, endorsing a proposal from the Metropolitan Washington branch that would permit gay and lesbian clergy in committed relationships to serve congregations. It would further reinstate those who have been removed because of a same-sex relationship.
The ELCA's 65 synods have the authority to bring actions to the assembly for consideration, said Hanson, who expects some voting members to push for immediate change. "A number of our synods have brought a variety of memorials regarding human sexuality," he said.
Debate on the gay clergy standard was fueled by the dismissal of the Rev. Bradley Schmeling, who said last year from the pulpit of St. John's Lutheran Church in Atlanta that he found a lifelong gay companion. While ELCA's Committee on Appeals ruled last month to defrock Schmeling, the Atlanta pastor has refused to leave the pulpit.
Hanson has said that the ELCA has not reached a schismatic point over homosexuality, emphasizing that conversations on the issue have continued churchwide.
"I'm certainly hearing concerns ... for how the relationships would be impacted," Hanson said, according to the local Tribune. "I hear 'impacted' not 'severed.' I hear honesty in that statement, but I also hear an invitation."
"The Lutheran communion has not come to the point of division over human sexuality," he added. "It's not to minimize the tension, but it is to affirm the thoughtfulness with which we have engaged each other."
Hanson, who is also president of the Lutheran World Federation (LWF), recently came out of a global LWF Council meeting where the homosexuality issue was also debated.
The Lutheran World Federation does not have a stance on the issue yet.
Meanwhile, Hanson said that an ELCA social statement on human sexuality is slated for presentation to the 2009 Churchwide Assembly in Minneapolis.
"The statement on human sexuality is intended to bring all of us into the conversation in the context of Scripture, our tradition and the context in which we live our lives to develop a bedrock social statement upon which then we will look at the policies and practices of this church and see whether they reflect that," Hanson said at a conference call July 26.
Resolutions this year may not require a constitutional change and can possibly be passed by a simple majority, said ELCA spokesman John Brooks, according to the Religion News Service.
"It will be a full week, but I think we have matured as a church in our ability to engage one another around questions where we don't have an agreement," said Hanson, who is expected to be re-elected for a second six-year term. "We're mindful that within the unity we have in the body of Christ there is deep diversity. But diversity does not demand uniformity, nor does it need to be the occasion for division. It can be, in a respectful way, a way that we enrich the unity we have in the body of Christ. That is my prayer for the assembly."
Other significant issues that will be discussed at the Aug. 6-11 ELCA Churchwide Assembly are biblical literacy and education.