Thousands of Lutherans will gather in Minneapolis on August 17 to take a historic vote on LGBT issues within the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).
The church-wide ELCA assembly will decide whether openly gay pastors in committed relationships can lead church congregations and whether the church will pass a “social statement” to soften its stance on homosexuality. If the measures pass, the ELCA would become the largest religious denomination in the United States to ordain gay pastors.
The decision will not come easy, as many within the church harbor strong feelings on both sides of the debate. With only weeks before the vote, delegates to the assembly are being wooed by supporters and opponents of a more welcoming church for LGBT Lutherans.
A conservative organization called Lutheran CORE has been working to convince the assembly’s voting members to oppose the softening of church rules related to homosexuality and to require a two-thirds majority to pass the proposals.
“The proposals are in fact no compromise,” CORE wrote in a letter to delegates. “They clearly imply that same-sex blessings and the ordination and rostering of homosexual persons in committed relationships are acceptable within the ELCA. The teaching of the church will be changed.”
CORE says the proposals will affect dealings with other churches.
“If the ELCA were to approve the public recognition of same-sex unions or the rostering of persons in such relationships, it would damage our ecumenical relationships with the Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church, and Evangelical churches.”
The letter was signed by nearly fifty Lutherans, including a dozen Minnesotans, most of whom are professors at Luther Seminary in St. Paul.
Supporters of the pro-LGBT proposals are also making their voices heard, as well.
Minnesota’s Herbert Chilstrom, the first presiding bishop of the ELCA in 1987 when the three largest Lutheran denominations merged that year, wields considerable influence in the church. He sent his own letter to CORE members, countering that the proposals will be good for the church. Chilstrom noted that the Bible is not merely a handful of verses and should be taken in its full context.
“So we have to ask – as we did with the role of women and the place of divorced persons — if a collection of a few verses is the last word. Or is Christ saying something different to us at this moment in the history of the church?” he wrote.
“I don’t believe it is as radical as some would have us believe, that we should change our minds about the ordination of gay and lesbian brothers and sisters in Christ in faithful relationships.”
He continued, “I pray for its passage. I pray it will be a strong message to the world that we are a church that includes rather than excludes those who love our Jesus as intensely as I do — and as you do. Yes, and a church that welcomes as pastors those whose only difference is that they are gay or lesbian and long for a faithful relationship.”
Different groups within the church are making their opinions known as well. More than 260 Lutheran theologians have signed a letter in support of allowing gay and lesbian pastors in life-long relationships to lead congregations. But a group called the Hispanic Pastors of the ELCA has rallied against the proposal.
“Homosexual behavior is not a race or a condition but is portrayed in Scripture as a behavior, a behavior which is not in accord with the will of the Creator,” the group wrote to assembly members. “Those who repent will receive our Lord’s forgiveness and the power of the Holy Spirit to change their behavior and to walk according to His Will and ways.”
No one is certain how the vote will turn out, but both sides will have a strong presence in Minneapolis lobbying for position with assembly members.
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