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A blue-ribbon panel recommended on Thursday (Feb. 19) that the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America lift its ban on partnered gay and lesbian clergy, but only after the church agrees in principle on gay relationships and respecting the consciences of those who dissent.
A majority of the 15-member Task Force for ELCA Studies on Sexuality believes that “it is possible to devise guidelines and policies that would allow … some flexibility” in its ordination standards.
The 4.8 million-member ELCA currently allows gay or lesbian clergy who pledge to be celibate; partnered or sexually active homosexual clergy are technically not allowed in ELCA pulpits, though some buck the rules without punishment.
The task force also released a 30-page statement outlining the church’s thinking on homosexuality, but, citing a lack of consensus, did not offer a recommendation on whether to adopt rites for blessing same-sex couples.
If adopted by the ELCA’s Churchwide Assembly in August, the proposals would remove the blanket ban on non-celibate gay and lesbian clergy, empowering local congregations and governing bodies to make their own decisions on whether to allow them.
“As on most matters, we trust people locally to make good decisions,” said the Rev. Stan Olson, an advisor to the task force and head of the ELCA’s unit on vocations.
While permitting non-celibate gay clergy would be a watershed decision for the ELCA, numerous obstacles could waylay the four-step process when it is considered by more than 1,000 delegates Aug. 17-23 in Minneapolis.
Emily Eastwood, executive director of the pro-gay group Lutherans Concerned/North America, called the recommendations a “net gain.”
But, Eastwood said, “we are distraught by the complexity of this system and the bureaucracy needed to maintain it if it passes.”
Delegates to the 2007 Churchwide Assembly asked the task force to offer policy recommendations on allowing partnered gay and lesbian ministers to serve in the ELCA, the nation’s largest Lutheran denomination. Like other mainline Protestants, the ELCA has struggled for years to find a consensus on the issue. A previous recommendation from the same task force to loosen restrictions on gay clergy was rejected by the Churchwide Assembly in 2005.
“This is a deeply divided church over this issue,” said the Rev.
Peter Strommen, chair of the task force.
The recommendations include four resolutions to be introduced at the Minneapolis convention. Church leaders emphasized, however, that the ELCA’s 37-member Church Council could amend the recommendations and the four-part approval process when it meets in March in Chicago. For example, it is unclear whether the resolutions will require approval by two-thirds of the assembly for passage or a simple majority.
In order to lift restrictions on gay clergy, the assembly must approve each of the following resolutions before the next could be
— That the ECLA is committed to allowing congregations and synods to recognize and support “lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships.”
— That the ELCA is committed to finding a way for people in such relationships to serve as clergy in the church.
— That the ELCA agrees to “respect the bound consciences” of churchmembers who disagree on the issue.
— The ELCA must agree to remove the blanket ban on partnered gay clergy.
Task Force leaders said the church must deal with underlying issues — how it feels about gay relationships and the lack of consensus in the church — before it can amend its rules.
“We think you can’t really deal adequately with the change in policy unless you clarify your thinking on the principles,” said Strommen, a former bishop who now pastors a church in Prior Lake, Minn.
Lutheran CORE, a conservative group, pledged to fight the recommendations.
“These recommendations mark a significant departure from the church’s commitment to Scripture as the source and norm of its faith and life,” said the Rev. Paull Spring of State College, Pa., a CORE leader and former ELCA bishop.

By Daniel Burke
Religion News Service
Copyright 2009 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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