Lutherans Brace for Policy-Setting Sexuality Debates

The highest legislative authority of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) will consider lifting a ban on gay and lesbian clergy who are in lifelong, monogamous relationships as it gathers this week for its biennial gathering.

More than 1,000 elected delegates will debate church policy at the 2009 ELCA Churchwide Assembly in Minneapolis, which commences Monday and concludes the following Sunday.

Among the proposals being considered is a statement on human sexuality and proposals that conservatives say would allow non-celibate homosexuals to be ordained.

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Like a number of mainline denominations, ELCA has been wracked by issues regarding homosexuality, which has become one of the most hotly debated issues in today's society and in the Church.

According to an in-depth national study of mainline Protestant clergy by Public Religions Research, a majority (54 percent) of ELCA clergy says that gay and lesbian people should be eligible for ordination with no special requirements and a plurality (46 percent) supports performing same-sex marriages in states where they are legal.

About one-third (32 percent), meanwhile, says that gay and lesbian people should be eligible for ordination only if they are celibate, and only 14 percent say gay and lesbian people should not be eligible at all.

"ELCA clergy also strongly believe that the gospel message requires full inclusion of gay and lesbian members in the life of the church, and support for ordination and participation in marriage ceremonies of gay and lesbian parishioners are concrete expressions of that theological conviction," commented Dr. Robert P. Jones, president of Public Religion Research, which drew the results of its study based on the responses of 2,658 mainline clergy.

Earlier this year, the Task Force for ELCA Studies on Sexuality released a long-awaited report acknowledging that there is neither a consensus nor an emerging one in the denomination on homosexuality. At the same time, the task force recommended that individual congregations be allowed to choose whether to allow gays and lesbians in committed relationships to be ordained.

Currently, the ELCA allows the ordination of gays and lesbians if they remain celibate.

As the sexuality issue has created significant rifts in other denominations and also put a strain on ELCA, ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark S. Hanson has urged for a stronger push toward unity from the grassroots – unity within the denomination and also with other Christians throughout the world – as the denomination's assembly draws closer.

"Rather than approach the assembly apprehensively, I invite you to see it as an opportunity for faith-filled witness to the larger human family that struggles with division and yearns for healing and wholeness that is real and true," the presiding bishop stated more than a month before this week's assembly.

"We live in a polarized culture that equates unity with uniformity and sees differences as a reason for division. This moment, and our witness as a church body in the midst of it, deserves something better from us," Hanson continued.

"We have the opportunity to offer the witness of our unity in Christ─diverse, filled with different-ness and differences, broken in sin, and yet united and whole in Christ. This moment deserves the witness of a community that finds and trusts its unity in Christ alone, engages one another with respect, and seeks a communal discernment of the Spirit's leading," he added.

With 4.7 million members, ELCA is the largest Lutheran church body in the United States and the fourth largest Protestant body.

Aside from acting on a proposed social statement on human sexuality and a recommendation on ministry policies, ELCA voting members at next month's churchwide assembly will consider various churchwide program proposals, conduct elections and consider memorials and resolutions.

The assembly theme is "God's work. Our hands."

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