The report will be read closely by other denominations.
KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
A major study on human sexuality by the nation's largest Lutheran denomination recommends no change in the church policy that precludes the ordination of gay or lesbian people in same-sex relationships.
The study released recently by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America also recommends that no official church ceremony be adopted to bless same-gender unions.
But on both divisive issues, a landmark task force report suggests discretion be granted to local congregations acting in "good conscience" to "make judgments appropriate to each situation."
It also suggests the church refrain from disciplining those congregations who may approve partnered gay or lesbian candidates for ministry, out of respect for "the deep divisions among us."
Read closely by others
The report will influence not only the ELCA's future deliberations but will be read closely by other U.S. denominations -- Methodists, Presbyterians and Episcopalians, for example -- that are strenuously debating issues of homosexuality.
The recommendations will be subject to revision and adoption by the Churchwide Assembly when it meets in Orlando, Fla., this August.
The diverse task force -- which includes a school principal, surgeon and farmer as well as bishops, pastors and professors -- made one recommendation as a precondition to the others: that the ELCA "concentrate on finding ways to live together faithfully in the midst of our disagreements."
The group asked the Churchwide Assembly not to consider sexuality a church-dividing issue, echoing a sentiment frequently expressed by ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson, a former St. Paul-area bishop. "Despite differing views on sexuality, it is not helpful to engage in a vote that will produce 'winners' and 'losers' among faithful Christians," the report said.
That appeared in part to be the reason no changes in current church policy were recommended.
The report was mandated as part of a six-year sexuality study by the ELCA's 2001 Churchwide Assembly. The ELCA, whose headquarters are in Chicago and whose membership is heavily concentrated in Minnesota and surrounding states, budgeted $1.15 million for the project.
The task force conducted a national study of more than 28,000 ELCA members, 56 percent of whom were opposed to approving blessing ceremonies and ordaining partnered gay or lesbian ministers. Twenty-three percent favored both blessing and ordaining, while 17 percent thought the church should delay any decision or had no opinion.
The task force concluded that a biblical or theological case for changing church policy had not been made to the satisfaction of the majority of ELCA members.
"Rather than attempting to resolve our differences through legislative action, we have sought to place matters in the realm of pastoral care," the report said.
It said the issue of ordination caused the greatest division among members of the task force, a group that included Terence Fretheim, a professor at Luther Seminary at St. Paul, and Northeastern Minnesota Bishop Peter Strommen of Duluth, Minn.
Some members believe current policy should be upheld with disciplinary measures in place; others believe prohibitions should be lifted against ordained ministers in committed same-gender relationships.
The report's recommendation would allow congregations to call a person to ministry "whose gifts ... seem well suited to the needs of that particular community of faith" -- even if such a person were in a committed same-sex union.
"This approach allows the ELCA to trust congregations, synods, candidacy committees and bishops to discern the Holy Spirit's gifts for ministry among the baptized," the report said.
While not recommending a formal ceremony for the blessing of same-gender unions, the report said some pastors may wish "to surround same-sex couples in committed, long-term relationships with prayerful support."
The blessing of such a union would not be considered equivalent to marriage, which the report affirms as "a lifelong covenant of faithfulness between a man and a woman," according to Lutheran teaching.
The task force also was asked to develop a social statement for the church about sexuality, which it plans to present for consideration in 2007.