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Lutheran assembly calls for restraint in disciplining gay partnered clergy


Biennial assembly tackles other denominational, societal issues.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s (ELCA) Churchwide Assembly, which ended its meeting August 12, has called for bishops to refrain from disciplining clergy members who are in same-gender relationships.

Current ELCA discipline requires gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered leaders (GLBT), both lay and ordained, to be celibate. The assembly made no changes to that standard for its professional leaders.

However, by a vote of 538 to 431, the assembly encouraged the ELCA’s synods, bishops and presiding bishop to “refrain from or demonstrate restraint in disciplining” people and congregations who call qualified leaders on the professional rosters of the ELCA “who are in a mutual, chaste and faithful, committed, same-gender relationship.”

The assembly also stated that the same restraint should apply to the professional leaders who are on the denomination’s official rosters and are in committed same-gender relationships.

According to the ELCA News Service, the Rev. Mark S. Hanson, ELCA presiding bishop, said at a news conference that the key words from the adopted action were that the Churchwide Assembly “prays, urges, and encourages” refraining or demonstrating restraint in discipline.

“These are words of counsel,” Hanson said. “They are not words that change the standards of the church. They reflect the mind of this assembly as it seeks to give counsel to the leaders of the church.”

Phil Soucy, spokesman for Lutherans Concerned, a gay-lesbian rights group within the church, told the Chicago Sun-Times newspaper, that request represents “huge” movement on the part of the ELCA.

Conservative leaders in the church, like the Rev. Mark Chavez, director of the Lutheran Word Alone Network, said the disciplinary measure contradicted church policy and provided a loophole for gay clergy to minister, the Chicago Tribune reported. Chavez said the resolution gives bishops permission to ignore the standards and disregard the clear word of God.

The Rev. Paul R. Landahl, bishop of the ELCA Metropolitan Chicago Synod, who proposed the resolution, told the assembly during debate, “We pray that somebody here today will listen to what we are trying to say and give us some breathing space to do what God is calling us to do.”

Eric M. Peterson of the ELCA South-Central Synod of Wisconsin told the assembly that “we need to refrain from harming good leaders.”

“Stop the bleeding of our church, and focus on mission and ministry,” he said.

Arthur Murphy of the ELCA Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast Synod opposed the action. “We’re trying to get in the back door what we did not do through the front door,” he said. “I urge us not to make haphazard, piecemeal policy but create a comprehensive solution at the 2009 Churchwide Assembly and pass it one way or another.”

The Churchwide Assembly, the chief legislative authority of the ELCA, met August 6-11 at the Chicago Navy Pier’s Festival Hall. About 2,000 people participated, including 1,069 ELCA voting members.

In 2005, the assembly refused to allow gay clergy to be in same-gender relationships and refused to let clergy bless same-gender marriage. That assembly agreed then 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 2007 assembly passed such a statement on education, addressing issues of children’s faith formation, quality of U.S. public schools, and support for Lutheran schools and campus ministries.

While it had been expected that the ELCA would refrain from passing any resolutions about human sexuality at this assembly in anticipation of the 2009 assembly’s consideration of the task force report, 21 resolutions came from synod assemblies earlier this year, asking that GLBT persons in relationships to be able to serve as ordained and professional lay leaders and allowing same-gender blessings.

Pressure to act on those resolutions increased when 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 GLBT 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.

In an earlier related decision, the assembly voted 733-278 August 9 to refer resolutions on the blessing of same-gender relationships to the task force.

Other Churchwide Assembly actions
On August 11, the assembly passed a resolution calling for ongoing work for a two-state solution to the conflict in Israel and Palestine. The resolution calls for investment in the Palestinian territories, consideration of refusing to buy goods or invest in activities taking place in Israeli settlements, and a review of other economic options, according to Bishop Christopher Epting, the Presiding Bishop’s deputy for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations (EIR), who attended the assembly.

The assembly also 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 Hanson as its presiding bishop to serve a second six-year term.

In the remaining days of the gathering, the assembly also called for churchwide strategy for combating the HIV/AIDS pandemic, heard about the ELCA’s progress toward diversity and learned that Lutherans had contributed more than $27 million and 1.5 million volunteer hours to Gulf Coast-recovery efforts.

The voting members asked its bishops to discuss their accountability “to the adopted policies, practices and procedures of the ELCA” and requested that a statement of such accountability be brought for consideration to the next Churchwide Assembly in 2009.

The ELCA also elected David D. Swartling, a trial lawyer from Seattle, August 11 to a six-year term as secretary. The secretary is responsible for ELCA leadership rosters, interpretation of governing documents such as the church’s constitution, the ELCA archives and handles other concerns for the 4.8 million-member church body. The post is a staff position at the ELCA churchwide Chicago office. Swartling, 60, is the first lay person to hold the post of secretary.

The churchwide assembly adopted budgets for 2008 and 2009. The 2008 budget includes a “current fund fiscal year income proposal” of $81,670,000 and Lutheran World Hunger Appeal income proposal of $19,250,000. For 2009, the assembly adopted current fund fiscal year income proposal of $81,920,000 and a World Hunger income proposal of $20 million. In discussions and reports earlier in the assembly, leaders of the churchwide organization emphasized that in recent years increasing revenue available for church operations has enabled the possibility of expanding ministry and outreach in a number of areas.

On August 9, the assembly recognized the presence of Episcopal Church guests in its midst, including Epting; House of Deputies President Bonnie Anderson; associate EIR deputy Tom Ferguson; and General Convention secretary and executive officer Gregory Straub. Epting brought greetings to the assembly from the Episcopal Church.


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