Unity was heavily stressed as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America began its 2005 Churchwide Assembly yesterday, and as delegates prepared for a fierce battle over the divisive topic of homosexual ordinations.
Mark S. Hanson, presiding bishop of ELCA told reporters there that the homosexuality debate may overshadow other major concerns within the 4.9-million member church, such as an aging, nearly all-white population that has been steadily declining over the years.
"One of my concerns is that we do not become so turned in on ourselves," that the internal fight cripples the denomination's efforts to diversify and rebuild, he said at a press conference Monday.
However, to the 2,300 ELCA attendants including the 1,018 voting member, Hanson said the church can strengthen itself by walking together.
Even before I declare us to be in session, before one word of debate is uttered, before the results of any votes are known. It is the miracle that we, by the power of the Holy Spirit, will with one voice confess our faith, 'We believe in one God. We believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, he said.
And despite concerns, Hanson said the ELCA is not a dying church.
"If that is the question you believe that we have gathered in Orlando to answer, 'Will we keep this church afloat?' Well, with all due respect, I need to say -- I think that is the wrong question, and it is not finally our task," said Hanson.
Meanwhile, within the Assembly hallways and corridors, activists on both sides of the gay ordination debate geared up to gain support from voting members.
Three recommendations on homosexuality are being considered this week at the assembly:
+ Call for unity despite differences on viewpoint
+ Uphold the churchs prohibition against same-sex blessings, but give bishops and pastors discretion in deciding what it means to minister to gay couples.
+ Affirm the church ban on ordaining sexually active gays and lesbians, but allow exceptions for some who are living in a committed relationship.
Conservatives have heavily criticized the second and third recommendations, calling them slippery attempts to say the church prohibitions are upheld while overturning any ban on gay ordination or same-sex marriage blessings.
Liberals on the other hand have criticized the policies for not going far enough.
Hanson acknowledged many voters are confused about the true impact of the proposals and he said he hoped their questions would be answered in public hearings set for Tuesday night.
"We're really inviting people into this as a conversation," Hanson said. He said he hoped that the years of research and debate that preceded this week's meeting would prevent any feeling that the assembly "imposed" a decision on churchgoers.