Lutherans Church Council Tackles Homosexuality Debate

The top members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) will meet later this week to prepare resolutions on two pivotal questions regarding homosexuality in the church: Should same-sex relationships be blessed? Should the ordination of actively homosexual individuals be allowed?

The Church Council meeting, slated for April 9-11 at the denomination’s Chicago, Ill headquarter, is the penultimate step in a four-year-long effort to clarify the church’s stance on the controversial issue.

“The question on homosexuality has been around forever in one form or another,” explained Frank Imhoff, Associate Director for the ELCA news service. “Or at least since 1988 when the denomination was formed”

According to Imhoff, the specific questions were raised during the ELCA’s 2001 Churchwide Assembly –the highest representative body of the five-million-member denomination – and a 2005 deadline was set for the answers.

Since then, a 14-member task force was elected to study the various opinions regarding the issues and to draft a recommendation of action for the church.

After three years, the task force in January 2005 released their recommendations, which were broken down into three parts. The first called on the church to find ways to live faithfully in the midst of disagreements. The second recommended the church continue to refrain from blessing homosexual relationships. The third recommended the church continue the current standards expecting unmarried ministers – including homosexuals – to abstain from sexual relationships, but added that the ELCA may choose to refrain from disciplining those who break the codes of conduct.

Reactions to the recommendations were mixed across the church, but those at the theological poles rebuffed the resolutions for lacking clarity and sensibility.

Conservatives and liberals especially criticized the third recommendation for its forthright contradictions: the church is calling on clergy to abstain from homosexual relationships but with no enforcements.

Conservatives said the third resolution “looks like a duck and quacks like a duck” while liberals slammed it for not providing sufficient rights for homosexual clergy.

Meanwhile, the synods – or districts – of the nationwide church responded in various ways. According to Imhoff, of the 65 synods of the ELCA, 35 responded with resolutions recommending a wide range of possible courses of actions -- from keeping the church's current standards intact to making changes in the church's standards beyond the recommendations of the task force.

“I read over the resolutions and what I found was that there is no one direction,” explained Imhoff.

These synod resolutions, as well as the task force recommendations, will be presented to the Church Council when it meets in Chicago. The Church Council will then prepare resolutions that will be placed on the agenda for the ELCA Churchwide Assembly this August.

The Churchwide Assembly is the only body that can adopt or reject any resolution on behalf of the entire church.

“The church council will draft a resolution to be placed before the Assembly,” said Imhoff. “It can use the recommendations or not – it can decide.”

According to Imhoff, once the resolutions are before the Assembly, they can be passed, rejected, appended or amended. Any combination of the four would apply to the resolutions drafted by the Council this week.

“The churchwide assembly can take a number of different approaches. There are three recommendations on the issue, and they can amend one and pass the other. It decides for itself what it wants to pass,” said Imhoff. “The churchwide assembly can do whatever it wants with the recommendations.”

The Church Council is expected to complete their resolutions by Monday.