Leaders resist public focus on upcoming vote over gays

The first of three proposals recognizes a need for members to agree to disagree.
YOUNGSTOWN -- Leaders at local Lutheran churches say a focus this week on differing opinions about homosexuality and its role in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America have made the topic seem more divisive than it should be.
The denomination's voting members have gathered this week at the Churchwide Assembly in Orlando, Fla., where they will vote Friday on three resolutions concerning homosexuality and the church.
The proposals were made by the ELCA Church Council on the basis of research by its Task Force for the ELCA Studies on Sexuality, which made clear the distinction between homosexuality, or homosexual orientation, and homosexual conduct.
On the table
The first of the proposals recommends that ELCA members concentrate on living together faithfully despite disagreements, a warning to some of the debate that follows.
The second resolution proposes that the church will not officially bless same-sex unions but will "trust pastors and congregations to discern ways to provide faithful pastoral care to same-sex couples."
The third proposal recommends that the church, which permits the ordination of celibate homosexuals, allow for exceptions permitting the ordination of noncelibate gays and lesbians in "life-long, committed and faithful same-sex relationships."
About 1,000 members will vote, but because they are not delegates, their votes will not necessarily represent the opinions of specific synods, the regional bodies of the church, or of individual congregations, said Deaconess Judy Hoshek, assistant to Bishop Marcus Miller of the Northeastern Ohio Synod.
Members of that synod, which includes Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana counties, voted earlier this year by a narrow margin to oppose the recommendations of the council regarding homosexuality.
Distracting publicity
Hoshek said it is possible that churches might leave the denomination based on the outcome of the votes, but that the debate should not be as big as it has seemed.
The public focus this week on the debate about the ordination and blessing of gays and lesbians is distracting from other equally important topics, such as efforts to make the denomination more inclusive of various demographics and a potential full communion with the United Methodist Church, Hoshek said.
Leaders at local churches expressed similar feelings.
"This is a very small issue in the picture of all things," said the Rev. Bill Wessner of New Life Lutheran Church in Liberty.
"I'm not advocating that we stop disagreeing," he said. "I'm advocating that we stop splitting ourselves apart over it."
The Rev. Mr. Wessner said he feels that the passage of the resolutions might be too soon for the church to handle because people in general are slow to change their perspectives.
The Rev. Paul Toelke of Grace Lutheran Church in Austintown said he wished the same passion was put into other efforts of the church.
"Would that it be that the denomination were this upset over people not being fed, justice not being administered and everybody being looked out for," he said.
Though the decision will affect few churches immediately, the extreme ends of the argument have made the issue seem divisive," the Rev. Mr. Toelke said.
Mr. Toelke said he was upset because he believes people can love each other in the type of committed, lifelong relationships on which the debates focus and that those debates were overshadowing the point of spreading the love of Christ.
The Rev. Paul Camp of Martin Luther Lutheran Church in Youngstown said he was waiting for the denomination's decision rather than voicing his own opinions.
"I'm not saying that I've chosen a stance yet because the church hasn't chosen a stance," he said. "My church is speaking in Orlando, so listen to them."

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