After years of study and debate, thousands of leaders of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) will gather in Minneapolis this August for a vote on whether to become more welcoming to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Lutherans. LGBT Lutherans are anxiously awaiting the outcome, which could pave the way for gay and lesbian pastors, bring same-sex commitment ceremonies to local congregations and impact policy in a state with a large number of Lutheran elected officials.
Minnesota’s Lutherans have already weighed in on the issue by way of “synod assemblies,” regional meetings around the state. The synods have come to different conclusions, reflecting the intense debate the issue raises. But LGBT advocates are hopeful that a mostly positive response from Minnesota’s synods will translate to success at the church-wide assembly in Minneapolis.
Two important issues will be taken up at the Minneapolis assembly. One is a debate over a document called the Social Statement on Human Sexuality.
“Social statements are terrifyingly important documents within the church,” said Phil Soucy of Lutherans Concerned, which works toward full inclusion of LGBT people within the church. “They describe the church as it is within the current society and forms the basis of policy and action.”
The social statement was years in the making, dating back to 2001, when members directed the ELCA to study the issue of sexuality within the church. Released by the Task Force for ELCA Studies on Sexuality in February, the report found that there’s no consensus among Lutheran theologians and laypersons about how to treat homosexuality in the churches, and recommended a social statement allowing each congregation to decide for itself how to address the issue of sexuality. The statement needs a simple majority vote to pass.
Also on the docket for the August meeting in Minneapolis is a change in ministry policy that could end the ban on non-celibate gay and lesbian clergy. Current church law forbids gay and lesbian pastors from being in committed relationships, but in 2005 the church-wide assembly directed the ELCA to refrain from punishing them for such relationships.
Minneapolis provides a perfect backdrop to move the church forward on the issue of gay and lesbian clergy. It was here in 1970 that the church agreed to allow women to become clergy, an issue that other denominations struggle with today.
Changes in church policy could have broad implications for Minnesota policy as legislators weigh the issue of LGBT equality each year: 36 percent of Minnesota’s Protestant legislators identify themselves as Lutheran. According to U.S. Census data, 24 percent of Minnesota residents say they’re Lutheran. Catholics outnumber Lutherans but only by one percent.
August’s vote won’t be the first time Minnesota’s synods weigh in on these controversial issues. At a May meeting in Moorhead, the Northwestern Minnesota Synod Assembly stopped short of supporting the social statement on human sexuality. By a vote of 256 to 202 the synod “declined to reject” the social statement, but the assembly rejected the ministry policy allowing gay and lesbian clergy by a slim margin: 225 votes to 223 with 13 abstentions.
“That’s about as razor’s edge as you can get,” synod Bishop Larry Wohlrabe told In-Forum. “I’m not surprised that it was close. I’m a little amazed that it was that close.”
The Southwestern Minnesota Synod Assembly met at Gustavus Adolphus in St.Peter in mid-June. Like their Northwestern Minnesota Synod neighbors they declined to reject the social statement by a vote of 338 to 275, but they did vote to reject gay and lesbian clergy by a vote of 303 to 279.
The Southeastern Minnesota Synod Assembly held at the Mayo Civic Center in Rochester in early May. The synod voted to become a “Reconciling in Christ” synod, a welcoming community for LGBT people, and defeated motions to express disapproval of the social statement and gay and lesbian clergy.
But, a motion to approve the social statement and gay and lesbian clergy was tabled and no vote was taken.
“I want to say we have turned the corner, but it’s probably more accurate to say we are turning the corner,” the Rev. Bruce Benson of the St. Olaf Student Congregation in Northfield, Minn., said of the reconciling motion. “Frankly, I think that as a church we are going to have to provide for rituals, rites, ceremonies that acknowledge the commitment of two same-gender people,” he told the Rochester Post-Bulletin.
Northeastern Minnesota Synod Assembly met in Brainerd in April and passed both the social statement and the resolution supporting gay and lesbian clergy.
Bishop Thomas Aitken told Northeastern Minnesota congregations that he hopes the meeting in Minneapolis will have the same outcome. “My hope and prayer is that the same kind of gentleness, clarity, respect and love for the whole body that I witnessed during our Synod Assembly, will prevail in the Churchwide Assembly,” he said. “We can understand and live in diversity and unity, all wrapped up in the same beautiful ’saint and sinner’ church. We’ve been doing it for years!”
The St. Paul Area Synod met in April and used a communal process to achieve consensus. They not only approved the social statement but also passed resolutions allowing for same-sex commitment ceremonies and agreed to retroactively reinstate gay or lesbian pastors who were removed from the rosters.
The Minneapolis Area Synod met in May and passed the social statement and resolution on gay and lesbian clergy. They also passed resolutions calling for “sexuality education” throughout the church and for the ELCA members to speak out against laws that discriminate against LGBT people.
In all, only two synods in Minnesota fully rejected either of the two measures to be put up for a vote in August.
“The environment has changed since 2007″ the last time the full church met, Soucy said. “These are issues that people feel very strongly about on both sides. It’s important that people read the social statement carefully and that they participate with a full knowledge of what it says. Uninformed dialogue is not very useful.”
While the proposed changes to the church have support, there are some conservative Lutherans who vehemently oppose them.
“The proposals are in fact no compromise,” according to Lutheran CORE, a conservative group that was founded to battle the LGBT-friendly resolutions. “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. We should not make such an important decision without clear biblical and theological support. The Task Force did not provide such support, nor has it been provided in statements from some of our colleagues in ELCA institutions,” reads an open letter on the group’s website.
And while there is vocal dissent over the issue, the head of the ELCA, Bishop Mark Hanson, said the church will get through the debate.
“Sometimes, when I hear concerns about division in the ELCA, I worry that they express a fear that unity depends on the actions of church leaders or assemblies,” he said in a statement on Friday. “Our unity, however, comes to us because God gives it freely and undeservedly in Jesus Christ.”
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