The largest Lutheran body in the nation caused a stir Saturday after controversially deciding not to punish homosexual clergy who are in sexual relationships.
At its annual assembly, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) passed by a vote of 538-431 a resolution urging bishops to refrain from disciplining pastors who are in "faithful committed same-gender relationships".
A day earlier, attendees voted down a measure that would have ended a ban on non-celibate gay clergy. Saturday's vote, however, means those who violate that policy can no longer be tried or punished.
"The Church ... has just said 'Do not do punishments'. That is huge," commented Phil Soucy, spokesman for Lutherans Concerned, a gay-lesbian rights group within ELCA.
The 4.8-million member church body had previously allowed gays to serve as pastors, but only under the condition that they abstained from any sexual relations.
Since ELCA was founded in 1988 by the merging of three churches, the denomination has ordered three pastors in gay relationships to be removed from their ministries.
The gay clergy issue has become an increasingly volatile subject among a number of Christian denominations – most notably the 77-million-member worldwide Anglican Communion, which is on the verge of schism as it debates the controversial issue.
The latest announcement from ELCA has been met with strong disapproval from conservatives within the Christian community who follow the historic Christian teachings, which declares homosexuality a sin according to Scripture.
The Rev. Mark Chavez, leader of Lutheran CORE, a group that says non-celibate gays should not serve as pastors, called the decision "tragic."
"This decision will be an excuse for bishops to disobey ELCA policy," he said. "This decision does not reflect the will of the people, but of bishops and clergy who disregard God's word."
In addition to urging bishops against disciplining, the Lutheran conference also instructed a committee that is developing a social statement on sexuality to further investigate the issue. The committee is scheduled to release its report in 2009.