The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America wrapped up its 2009 Churchwide Assembly on Sunday with calls for caution as well as unity.
Just before members returned to their respective cities, ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark S. Hanson urged them to be cautious in their reports to their congregations and not to use the word "fear."
After pledging to speak well of those who attended this year's assembly and of the denomination, Hanson said, "One way I will speak well of you is not to use the word 'fear' to describe those who oppose the actions that prevailed in many of our discussions. It's not helpful to our life together. It's not respectful of deeply held convictions shaped by theology and Scripture and faith," as reported by the ELCA News Service.
On Friday, ELCA's highest legislative body voted to lift the denomination's ban on noncelibate gay and lesbian clergy. The vote left the body divided as some rejoiced and others were broken-hearted.
Hanson acknowledged the deep differences in the denomination over the issue of homosexuality and was well aware of the consequences the vote could have.
Addressing congregations that are considering leaving the ELCA, Hanson asked them to step back and take time with their decision.
The Gospel "is too good to squander with internal conflicts that will drain our energies when our capacity is to bring the Good News to the world so that all might know Jesus," he emphasized.
The church, he said, should be a place for "rich theological conversation, inquiry and faith expressions and explorations" where people feel safe to preach and serve "in ways that they believe are consistent with the vows one takes in ordination and the promises one makes in the affirmation of Baptism."
The divide over last week's decision was apparent on Sunday as Lutherans across the country gathered for worship.
Congregants at Holy Trinity Lutheran in Chicago, Ill., celebrated the gay-affirming vote and were proud to be a Lutheran, according to the Chicago Tribune.
Members at St. Mark Lutheran Church in Lindenhurst, Ill., however, had heavy hearts as they began to ponder their place in the 4.6 million-member denomination.
Earlier, in an address on Saturday, the head of the Lutheran World Federation urged ELCA members to stay together even as some struggle to grapple with the controversial vote.
"God, send the Holy Spirit to keep them together," the Rev. Dr. Ishmael Noko said as he expressed his support to the U.S. denomination.
"Your struggles are our struggles. Even when our members express concern and disagreement with what you are doing, that expression of disapproval is a mark that our lives are tied together in ways that we can never explain," he told ELCA members gathered in Minneapolis. "Let's continue to pray for one another."
In other business during the Aug. 17-23 assembly, ELCA voting members approved actions to support a program that seeks to eliminate malaria in south-Saharan Africa, raise $10 million dollars for an HIV/AIDS strategy, commit to health care reform, support reform in the nation’s current immigration policy, advocate on behalf of a peaceful resolution in the Israel-Palestine conflict, and develop a social statement on justice for women.