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Evangelical Lutheran Church holds biennial Churchwide Assembly in Chicago


International concerns, human sexuality issues addressed.

The biennial Churchwide Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), which began meeting August 6 at the Navy Pier in Chicago, has committed to renewed efforts to surpass $25 million in annual giving to the ELCA World Hunger Appeal; expressed concern for genocide in Darfur; opposed the escalation of war in Iraq; and re-elected Mark Hanson as its presiding bishop to serve a second six-year term.

The assembly began August 9 to debate a series of resolutions about human sexuality. The most prominent of those resolutions, or “memorials,” involve allowing same-gender blessings and eliminating the ELCA’s prohibition against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) ministers entering into same-gender relationships.

Earlier in the day August 9, the assembly recognized the presence of Episcopal Church guests in its midst. House of Deputies President Bonnie Anderson; Bishop Christopher Epting, the Presiding Bishop’s deputy for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations (EIR); associate deputy Tom Ferguson; and General Convention secretary and executive officer Gregory Straub are attending some or all of the assembly as invited ecumenical guests.

The Churchwide Assembly is the ELCA’s chief legislative authority and represents the 4.85 million members of the ELCA across the United States and Caribbean. All plenary sessions are being broadcast live here and the assembly’s schedule is here.

By a vote of 984 to 5, the assembly committed the church to “reach and surpass, as soon as possible, the goal of $25 million in annual giving by individuals and congregations” to the ELCA World Hunger Appeal.

“Through relief, development, education and advocacy, the ELCA World Hunger Appeal combats the root causes of poverty,” said Nancy Arnison, director, ELCA World Hunger Program. “This past year, gifts to ELCA World Hunger totaled over $20 million -- a milestone -- a powerful commitment to making a difference in the lives of our neighbors.”

Human sexuality debate
Much of the initial debate on human sexuality August 9 addressed whether the assembly ought to pass any memorials dealing with human sexuality before the 2009 Churchwide Assembly in Minneapolis.

In 2005, the assembly refused to allow gay clergy to be in same-gender relationships and to let clergy bless same-gender marriage. That assembly agreed to a denominational study on sexuality which will be considered as a so-called “social statement” at the 2009 assembly.

Social statements are social-policy documents adopted by the ELCA Churchwide Assembly. Since 1991, the ELCA has adopted eight social statements on topics ranging from abortion to race, ethnicity and culture.

The Rev. Bradley Schmeling, of St. John’s Lutheran Church in Atlanta, was removed from the ELCA’s list of rostered ministers in July after telling his bishop he is in a relationship with another man. Schmeling’s partner, Darin Easler, was de-rostered in 2006 and joined the United Church of Christ.

Schmeling and some 80 LGBT Lutheran clergy August 8 publicly opposed the celibacy requirement, in a move meant to spur the denomination to change the rule. For many of them, it was the first time they publicly acknowledged their same-gender relationships, according to various news reports.

The ELCA is the fifth largest Protestant denomination in the United States and is organized into 65 synods, each headed by a bishop. The ELCA is one of 140 member churches of the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) with nearly 66.7 million Lutherans in 78 countries. ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark S. Hanson is president of LWF.

About 2,000 people -- including 1,071 voting members elected by the 65 ELCA synods -- are participating in the ELCA’s 10th biennial assembly. Each of the ELCA’s 10,389 congregations may send one representative to the assembly as an official “congregational observer.”

Synod assemblies can bring memorials to the Churchwide Assembly and 21 resolutions came from synod assemblies earlier this year, allowing LGBT persons in relationships to be able to serve as ordained and professional lay leaders and allowing same-gender blessings.

The Churchwide Assembly’s August 8 plenary opened with a Bible study that focused on human sexuality through consideration of the Letter to the Galatians. The Rev. David L. Tiede, former president of Luther Seminary, St. Paul, and professor, Augsburg College, Minneapolis, asked the assembly August 8 to consider, “How in heaven’s name are we as a church going to develop and adopt a ’social statement’ on sexuality in the midst of disputes about what is moral or just? If it’s all just sexual politics, as the media suspect, our congregations and our families are split.”

“Sex is harder to discuss than money. So what if your politics are liberal or conservative?” asked Tiede.

Complete ELCA coverage of the Churchwide Assembly is available here.

Epting spoke to the assembly August 9 and was asked, as were all ecumenical speakers, to describe how Scripture is central to the denomination. Epting said until about 50 years ago, most Episcopalians encountered Scripture primarily in the context of worship as it is read and sung and eluded to in the prayers and liturgies found in The Book of Common Prayer. In the last 50 years of the past century and into this century, Episcopalians have become “more comfortable with, engaged in and challenged by” Scripture as they more frequently studied the Bible as individuals and in small groups, Epting said. He noted that recent General Conventions and Executive Council meetings have included Bible study in small groups that combine laity and clergy.

The Episcopal Church and the ELCA entered into a relationship of “full communion” January 1, 2001, on the basis of the document “Called to Common Mission,” culminating 30 years of dialogue with one another.

Epting said the Episcopal Church is pleased to be in common mission with the ELCA. “We have much to learn from you and perhaps some things to share as well,” he said.

In addition to following the actions of the assembly, Anderson, Straub and General Convention manager Lori Ionnitiu are studying the assembly’s process to discern whether similar techniques could be employed to assist General Convention in its work.


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