More than 200 Lutherans opposed to blessing same-sex unions and ordaining noncelibate homosexuals say the ELCA doesn't listen to them. They gathered at Ruskin Heights Lutheran Church in Kansas City, Mo., Oct. 24-26 to make their voices heard.

Participants in the "Conference on Christian Sexuality," sponsored by the American Lutheran Publicity Bureau, developed an 81-line "Pastoral Statement of Conviction and Concern." The statement outlines their position and expresses reservations about continued involvement with the ELCA should its 2005 Churchwide Assembly approve same-sex unions and ordination of noncelibate gays and lesbians.

The statement says: "We earnestly desire to remain actively engaged in the life and mission of our church, but we observe that the ELCA is becoming schismatic and sectarian."

The statement's drafters said changes in the church's stance on homosexuals would distort the biblical record, appeal to questionable scientific theories, suppress inconvenient data and rely on individual experience rather than Scripture. "The conversations on this issue thus far have largely focused on personal experience and the sharing of anecdotes rather than on the teaching of Holy Scripture and the theological and confessional witness of the church," the statement says.

Nine speakers addressed a range of issues, but most shared a common theme: Lutheran lay people have heard only a view that supports changing church doctrine.

Merton Strommen, an ELCA pastor and research psychologist who wrote The Church and Homosexuality: Searching for a Middle Ground (Kirk House Publishers, 2001), blamed six societal institutions for limiting information to a single viewpoint He said national mental-health organizations such as the American Psychiatric Association make it difficult for researchers to publish findings that suggest individuals can change their sexual orientation. Academic institutions refuse to publish papers suggesting that homosexuality isn't healthy, Strommen said, adding that the media fail to present stories about the "dark side of homosexuality"; courts permit legal threats against organizations accused of discriminating against gays; and public schools have adopted curricula that present homosexuality as normal.

The ELCA Division for Outreach is the sixth source of one-sided information, Strommen said, and its papers and resources are biased in favor of accepting homosexuality.

James Nestingen, professor of church history at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minn., and Robert Gagnon, associate professor of New Testament at Pittsburgh (Presbyterian) Seminary, addressed biblical issues surrounding the matter. Gagnon reviewed various texts, concluding that the Old and New Testaments don't offer an instance where same-sex relationships could be viewed in a positive light. "It's impossible to argue that there's any instance where Paul would approve of a same-sex relationship," he said. "It's impossible to argue that something can be contrary to nature and still not be sinful."

Nestingen said the ecumenical consensus of the church for 2,000 years has been restraint in homosexual practice. But the combination of American emphasis on the individual over the community with a growing preference for values over facts has been a corrosive mix for society, he said. This has led to the current deliberations on the acceptability of homosexuality, he added.

The gospel and the Lutheran view of vocation, particularly marriage, should serve as resources in conversations about homosexuality, Nestingen suggested. "In marriage we become the faces of God to one another, not faceless parts coupling and uncoupling like so many boxcars," he said.

Thomas Skrenes, bishop of the ELCA Northern Great Lakes Synod, blamed the current crisis on the low value Lutherans place on Scripture.

Skrenes said he's struggled with the question of right and wrong in the discussion of homosexuality. "What if I'm wrong and the homosexual issue is the human rights issue of our time? ... Is my hubris the sin here and not homosexual activity?" he asked.

But the bishop said he hasn't been convinced that his understanding of Scripture is wrong. "If I can be convinced by the word of God that I am wrong, then so be it," he added. Skrenes suggested that the groups advocating for change in church policy related to homosexuality are well-funded and well-entrenched within the ELCA. "They don't represent a majority of the church, but they may represent the majority of the decision-makers," he said, cautioning conference participants that they likely will be compared to Lutheran racists who opposed the civil rights movement 50 years ago.

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