The nation's largest Lutheran denomination will consider allowing individual congregations to choose whether to allow gays and lesbians in committed relationships to serve as clergy, an attempt to avoid the sort of infighting that has threatened to tear other churches apart.
A task force of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America recommended that course Thursday in a long-awaited report on ministry standards. The panel, however, said the church needs to clarify a number of questions before overhauling its gay clergy policy.
The report, issued at the same time as a broader church social statement on human sexuality, seeks balance on an issue dividing many Protestant churches. Both documents will be considered in August in Minneapolis at the biannual convention of the 4.7-million member denomination.
"At this point, there is no consensus in the church," said the Rev. Peter Strommen of Prior Lake, Minn., chairman of the 15-member task force on sexuality. "The question ends up being, 'How are we going to live together in that absence of consensus?'
"This ought not to be church-dividing, even if there are strong differences."
Church members on both sides of the issue, however, were dissatisfied with the proposal. Conservatives called it a rejection of Scripture and an advocate for gay clergy said some of the elements take "a step backward."
Gays and lesbians can now serve as clergy in the ELCA if they remain celibate, although some congregations have challenged the system and hired pastors in gay relationships. Heterosexual clergy and professional lay workers are to abstain from sex outside marriage.
The proposed change would cover those in "lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships."
The task force recommended a deliberate four-step process toward a new policy - starting with asking the church whether it is committed in principle "to finding ways to allow congregations and synods that choose to do so to recognize, support, and hold publicly accountable" those relationships.
The task force is not urging a liturgical rite for same-sex couples, said the Rev. Stanley Olson, executive director of vocation and education for the Chicago-based denomination.
The desire is to hold gay people accountable to their relationships much like heterosexual couples are bound by marriage, he said. The report doesn't propose ways to accomplish that.
Next, the church would consider whether it wants to find a way to allow gay clergy while agreeing to "respect the bound consciences of all." If the assembly can agree on those things, then it would weigh the recommendation essentially granting a local option on gay clergy in committed relationships.
The proposal is an effort to avoid the sort of splintering that the 77 million-member Anglican Communion has suffered since 2003, when the Episcopal Church - the Anglican body in the U.S. - consecrated the first openly gay bishop, V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire. His election intensified a long-running debate over what Anglicans should believe about salvation, sexuality and other issues.
The ELCA report calls for "structured flexibility" giving congregations, regional church bodies called synods and candidacy committees freedom to "act according to their convictions."
"The task force believes the church will be better at respecting the consciences of people who disagree if we allow room for different practice," Olson said. "That goes hand in hand with our conviction that our Christian unity doesn't depend on agreement about ethical questions."
The report identifies fault lines in the church on the gay clergy question, including disagreement over the nature of sin, biblical interpretation, what's best for people with same-sex orientation and the role of social sciences and biology in forming judgments.
Leaders of the conservative group Lutheran CORE said they would work to defeat the proposals, describing them as a rejection of Scripture and contrary to the wishes of most church members.
"When any church finds itself accommodating its teachings to the ways of the culture, that church is in trouble," the Rev. Erma Wolf of Brandon, S.D., vice chair of the group's steering committee, said in a statement. "No church has the authority to overturn the Word of God."
Emily Eastwood, executive director of Lutherans Concerned/North America, which advocates full inclusion for gays and lesbians in the church, called the recommendations a "net gain."
But she criticized the local option, saying it would prevent congregations from hiring gay clergy if their synods prohibit it. As it stands, many congregations have hired gay clergy without fear of reprimand since bishops were directed in 2007 to show restraint in disciplining the practice, she said.
"This is actually a step backward rather than a step forward from where we are now," she said. "It's going to create, in effect, a regional discrimination."
The clergy recommendations echo themes in the social statement, "Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust." That document, released in draft form last year, underscores the importance of trust, faithfulness and commitment in all human relationships and upholds the definition of marriage as a covenant between a man and woman.