July 26 - The head of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the latest Protestant group in a showdown over homosexuality, said Tuesday he hoped the denomination would stay united no matter what the outcome of its debate.

The ELCA General Assembly is scheduled to vote during an Aug. 8-14 meeting in Orlando, Fla., on whether gays in committed relationships should be ordained and their same-sex unions blessed by the church.

In a conference call with reporters, Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson said he hoped anyone contemplating leaving the denomination after the gathering would consider the church's role in the world beyond its stance on homosexuality.

"I think as a large church body we have great capacity to be in mission together that is diminished when we are apart," Hanson said. Of the intense deliberations ahead, he said he hoped "that we will not take the tensions they create as evidence of a divided church but as a sign that a church is struggling with what it means to be centered in Christ."

"I don't look to a tension-free church as the mark of a vital and healthy church in mission," he said.

The three major Lutheran proposals related to homosexuality would:

-affirm the church ban on ordaining sexually active gays, but allow bishops or church districts called synods to seek an exception for a particular candidate;

-uphold the denomination's prohibition against same-sex blessings, but give bishops and pastors discretion in deciding how to minister to gay couples;

-call for unity despite differences over what the Bible says about homosexuality.

The measures could be amended during the meeting, and Hanson would not say how he would vote. Hanson is also president of the Lutheran World Federation, which represents 138 churches in 77 countries. He declined to reveal details of his talks with overseas churches about the upcoming assembly, but said he plans to discuss the vote with them after the meeting.

Members of the federation differ on gay issues.

The Protestant Church in the Netherlands, a merger of Lutheran and Reformed churches, allows blessings for gay couples. But last week the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada rejected a proposal that would have let local pastors decide whether to bless same-sex couples.

With almost 5 million members, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is one of the nation's largest Protestant denominations and the most recent to vote on key gay issues.

Two years ago, the U.S. Episcopal Church sparked a crisis in world Anglicanism by consecrating its first openly gay bishop - V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire.

The other major U.S. Lutheran body, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, is staunchly conservative on homosexuality and other issues.

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