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by Daniel Burke
The nation’s largest Lutheran denomination will again face
the divisive issue of sexuality when it considers resolutions on gay
clergy and same-sex blessings at its biennial assembly in Chicago next
week (Aug. 8-12).
After the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) voted at its
last Churchwide Assembly in 2005 to maintain church rules that ban
noncelibate gay and lesbian ministers, many thought the issue would be
tabled until a comprehensive study on sexuality was completed in 2009.
But 22 of the ELCA’s 65 regional synods have asked the church to
again address standards for gay clergy this year, pushing for change
within the 5 million-member denomination.
About half of the 125 proposed resolutions to be debated at the
assembly address sexuality, standards and discipline for sexual conduct
of clergy and same-sex blessings. “The battle lines are being drawn,”
said one advocate, while ELCA leaders are pleading for comity amid the
contentious debate.
Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson, who is expected to be be re-elected
for a second six-year term in Chicago, is among those who say the church
should wait for the 2009 study on sexuality, called a “social
statement,” before taking action.
“The statement on human sexuality is intended to bring all of us
into the conversation in the context of Scripture, our tradition and the
context in which we live our lives to develop a bedrock social statement
upon which then we will look at the policies and practices of this
church and see whether they reflect that,” Hanson said at a conference
call with reporters July 26.
However, Hanson said he expects some of the 1,071 voting members of
the assembly will to push for immediate change.
The Rev. Bradley Schmeling of Atlanta, who was defrocked in July
after he told his bishop he was in a noncelibate homosexual
relationship, is among those hoping for a change in policy.
Schmeling and a group of 20 members from St. John’s Lutheran Church
in Atlanta will be in Chicago “to try to put a face on the issue of
policy,” he said, though he is not a voting member of the assembly.
The pro-gay group Lutherans Concerned/North America will bring more
than 100 volunteers to conduct a service and exhibitions devoted to
telling the stories of lesbian and gay clergy, said spokesman Phil
Soucy.
“In 2005, the church voted that we would journey together faithfully
in the midst of disagreement, and I think we can’t do that if we’re
throwing people out of the conversation,” Schmeling said.
Conservative Lutherans were somewhat caught off guard by the surge
to change church rules this year, said the Rev. Craig Werling, pastor of
the American Evangelical Lutheran Church in Milbank, S.D.
“Quite honestly, we didn’t expect to have to fight that in 2007,”
said Werling, who is a member of Lutheran Churches of the Common
Confession, a traditionalist group that opposes gay clergy on scriptural
grounds.
“We have a serious and fundamental disagreement with them,” Werling
said. “We’re trying to do that in a way that’s loving, but we definitely
want to defend what we believe is right.”
At the 2005 ELCA assembly, advocates for changing rules on gay
clergy garnered 490 votes, falling well short of the two-thirds majority
needed for a constitutional amendment. But the resolutions this year may
not require a constitutional change and could possibly be passed by a
simple majority, said ELCA spokesman John Brooks.
Copyright 2007 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of
this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written
permission.

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