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ELCA Report Released on Gay-Lesbian Blessings and Ordination
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America will not change policies on gay-lesbian blessings or ordination but opens space for change according to a task force report.
ELCA NEWS SERVICE
January 13, 2005
ELCA Task Force Issues Recommendations On Homosexuality 05-005-FI
CHICAGO (ELCA) -- A task force of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) is recommending that the church continue to provide pastoral answers to two key questions on homosexuality. In August the ELCA Churchwide Assembly is to decide whether or not the church should bless same-gender relationships and whether or not it should allow people in such relationships to serve the church as professional lay and ordained ministers.
"Rather than attempting to resolve our differences through legislative action, we have sought to place matters in the realm of pastoral care and to encourage continued engagement as we minister to one another," the 14-member task force of the ELCA Studies on Sexuality said in the report it released Jan.13.
"It is important to recognize that a pastoral approach regarding these issues prevailed even though various task force members would have preferred other options," it said.
"Though our recommendations do not establish new policy or change existing policy, they do appeal for respect for one another's bound consciences as a matter of pastoral concern," the task force said.
The report had six parts. The first part listed three recommendations the task force had for the churchwide assembly -- that the ELCA:
+ concentrate on finding ways to live together faithfully in the midst of disagreements.
+ continue to respect the pastoral guidance of the 1993 statement of the Conference of Bishops regarding the blessing of homosexual relationships.
+ continue under the standards regarding sexual conduct for rostered leaders as set forth in "Vision and Expectations" and "Definitions and Guidelines for Discipline," but that, as a pastoral response to the deep divisions in the ELCA, this church may choose to refrain from disciplining those who in good conscience, and for the sake of outreach, ministry and the commitment to continuing dialogue, call or approve partnered gay or lesbian candidates whom they believe to be otherwise in compliance with "Vision and Expectations" and to refrain from disciplining those rostered people so approved and called.
Current ELCA policy expects ministers to refrain from all sexual relations outside marriage, which it defines as "a lifelong covenant of faithfulness between a man and a woman." The church has no official policy on blessing same-gender relationships.
The Conference of Bishops is an advisory body composed of the ELCA's 65 synod bishops, presiding bishop and secretary. In 1993 it said it recognized a "basis neither in Scripture nor tradition for the establishment of an official ceremony by this church for the blessing of a homosexual relationship." It said it did "not approve such a ceremony as an official action of this church's ministry," but it added that it would "continue dialogue with those pastors and congregations who are in ministry with gay and lesbian persons, and affirm their desire to explore the best ways to provide pastoral care for all to whom they minister."
"Rostered" leaders of the ELCA are lay and ordained ministers of the church. Lay ministers are associates in ministry, deaconesses and diaconal ministers. "Vision and Expectations" is a document outlining the ELCA's standards for those who serve as rostered leaders.
A section of "Vision and Expectations" that deals with "sexual conduct" said, "Ordained and commissioned ministers who are homosexual in their self-understanding are expected to abstain from homosexual sexual relationships."
In the task force report, a preface preceded each recommendation, and commentary followed.
In the commentary on the first recommendation the task force said it found no consensus in the church on the questions regarding homosexuality and that, if the assembly accepts the first recommendation, it will signal that the church is willing "to continue mutually respectful dialogue on the issues of human sexuality while seeking to remain engaged in mission together as the ELCA."
Commentary on the second recommendation said "the desire to provide the best pastoral care may motivate some pastors and congregations to surround same-sex couples in committed, long-term relationships with prayerful support. Surrounding persons or households with prayerful support does not necessarily mean public approval of homosexual sexual intimacy.
"Such an exercise of pastoral care should be understood as a matter quite distinct from and in no way equivalent to marriage." The task force went on to "beseech the church to commit itself to respect one another's consciences in this matter."
The third recommendation's commentary pointed out that ELCA congregations are "not forced to accept" any minister. The church strives to match the gifts of a minister with the needs of a particular community of faith, it said, and those doing that work should be trusted to do it with respect for the consciences of those favoring and those opposing the church's policies.
The second part of the report presented the task force's rationale behind its recommendations.
"Our goal was to seek to understand our differences and to find a way for us to be the body of Christ. Our first recommendation challenges the ELCA to recognize our differences without either glossing over them or letting them divide us," the report said.
"The task force members came to recognize that the biblical-theological case for wholesale change in this church's current standards has not been made to the satisfaction of the majority of participants in the study," it said. "While the responses to the study show a majority in favor of present practices and standards, there is, however, neither a consensus -- a general agreement -- nor any emerging consensus on these practices and standards."
The report's third part showed the recommendations of two dissenting positions voiced by some task force members. One would affirm the church's current policies and practices, asking that discipline "be undertaken with all humility" and that those who act contrary to church policies "endure the discipline of the church for the sake of peace." The other dissenting position would remove reference to homosexuality from "Vision and Expectations."
The fourth part of the report gave a general overview of the process the task force followed to arrive at its report and recommendations.
Part five of the report listed some summary comments and "additional concerns" gleaned from more than 28,000 responses to the task force's study materials, "Journey Together Faithfully." Part six was a "full statistical summary" of those responses.
Since its first meeting in May 2002, the task force developed two studies, "Journey Together Faithfully" parts one and two. Task force members were involved in hearings across the church and received speakers on a variety of related topics.
ELCA leaders received a confidential preview of the report and recommendations by e-mail on Jan. 12. A question-and-answer document accompanied the preview, to help the church's leaders interpret the report and recommendations for their congregations and communities.
Next Steps for Task Force Report and Recommendations
The ELCA's 10,657 congregations may study the report and recommendations and respond directly to synod councils and assemblies. The ELCA Conference of Bishops is expected to discuss the report and recommendations when it meets March 3-8 in Dallas.
The boards of the ELCA Division for Church and Society and the ELCA Division for Ministry will meet here March 10-13. They are expected to review the task force report and recommendations and forward them to the Church Council with any additional comments from the boards.
The Church Council is the ELCA's board of directors and serves as the legislative authority of the church between churchwide assemblies.
The council will meet here April 8-11. It is to receive the task force report and recommendations with any additional board comments and to transmit the report and recommendations to the 2005 Churchwide Assembly. The council will prepare a resolution for the assembly action on the recommendations.
April through June the ELCA's 65 synods meet separately in synod assemblies. They may discuss the report and recommendations and address the 2005 Churchwide Assembly through resolutions called "memorials." The churchwide assembly will receive the report and recommendations, and it will consider the council's resolution, synod memorials and other related resolutions from voting members of the assembly.
The ELCA's chief legislative body is the churchwide assembly, which meets every other year; the next assembly will be Aug. 8-14 in Orlando, Fla. The 2001 assembly mandated the study in preparation for decisions the 2005 assembly is to make.
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The task force report can be found at http://www.elca.org/faithfuljourney/ on the ELCA Web site. The 1993 Statement of the ELCA Conference of Bishops on blessing of homosexual relationships is at http://www.elca.org/sr/bishopsblessings.html and "Vision and Expectations -- Ordained Ministers in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America" is at http://www.elca.org/candidacy/vision_ordained.html on the Web.
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