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Task force urges no new gay policies



Published: Sat, January 15, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



One official expects the report will generate fireworks.

MILWAUKEE JOURNAL SENTINEL

CHICAGO -- A task force with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is recommending no new policies to resolve the contentious issues of same-sex blessings and partnered gay clergy after nearly three years of study, but it is proposing making discipline for infractions discretionary.

That shift, designed to create a more open space for pastoral care of gays and lesbians while dialogue and discernment on the issues continue, would formalize what some bishops are doing on a limited basis.

What it could do

It also could prompt more congregations to issue a call to a homosexual minister who is in a committed relationship as long as the local synod and bishop agree on the need for such pastoral care.

The report by the 14-member Task Force for ELCA Studies on Sexuality was released Thursday morning at the denomination's national offices in Chicago. It is the result of scores of nationwide consultations, hearings, and group study sessions at all levels in the church. Ordained and lay task force members, who represent a wide range of viewpoints, include the Rev. Gary Liedtke, pastor of Calvary Lutheran Church in Brookfield, Wis.

With 5 million members, the ELCA is the largest Lutheran branch and sixth-largest denomination in the nation.

The report's reception?

"I think there will be a lot of fireworks and a lot of good conversation," said Bishop Margaret G. Payne of the ELCA New England Synod, chairwoman of the task force.

"I think most people will do their best to really pray about it and think about it. These are simply recommendations to be brought before the whole church for continued discussion and more ideas."

Reaction forthcoming

Rank-and-file reaction remains to be seen, but two opposing advocacy groups were displeased.

Emily Eastwood, who is both executive director of Lutherans Concerned/North America and a spokeswoman for the Lutheran Alliance for Full Participation, said she was dismayed and saddened, adding that the report institutionalizes discrimination against gays and lesbians.

Pastor Jaynan Clark Egland of Spokane, Wash., president of the WordAlone Network, termed it "an attempt to hoodwink" people in the pews into believing the recommendations would not change ELCA practices.

Bishop Paul Stumme-Diers of the Greater Milwaukee Synod -- which allows same-sex blessings in congregations that want them -- said its pastoral approach, "faithful to the gospel while sensitive to ministry contexts," had served the synod well and is echoed in the report.

The Rev. James Childs, director of ELCA Studies on Sexuality and a theology professor at Trinity Lutheran Seminary, in Columbus, Ohio, said, "I think people with different opinions will be both encouraged and disappointed. My hope is, though, that after initial reactions, people and congregations will settle into the business of giving careful attention to the entire report ... so that constructive work gets done."

Find ways to live together

As a precondition, the report's first recommendation asks for the church to eschew a split and "concentrate on finding ways to live together faithfully in the midst of our disagreements."

The ELCA does not prohibit blessings of committed, same-sex relationships, but it also does not encourage them or equate them with marriage. Its Conference of Bishops has found no basis for them in Scripture or tradition and has declined to develop rites for them. Decisions on allowing them are left up to local bishops, synods, and pastors.

The denomination requires that seminarians, lay ministers and ordained clergy who are not married be celibate.

The church has no discipline for conducting same-sex blessings, the Rev. Mr. Childs said.

Asked if it mandates disciplinary action against gay clergy in committed relationships, and congregations who call them to ministry, Bishop Payne said there is the expectation that discipline will be imposed but not necessarily a mandate.

Division in the church was apparent in the report's analysis of more than 28,000 responses to a survey that was part of a nationwide study guide the task force circulated. It found that 56 percent of individuals opposed same-sex blessings and partnered gay clergy, and 23 percent favored them.

Remain in dialogue

The recommendations to remain in dialogue and to continue same-sex blessings passed nearly unanimously, Payne said. The recommendation to make discipline discretionary passed by slightly more than a two-thirds majority.

The report will go to the Conference of Bishops, the Church Council, the 65 synods, and congregations. Various resolutions could come before the Churchwide Assembly, the chief legislative body, Aug. 8-14 in Orlando, Fla.

For the report, go to www.elca.org/faithfuljourney.




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