Lutheran panel sidesteps gay clergy issue


Underscoring deep divisions in the United States' largest Lutheran denomination, a task force called yesterday for retaining the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's prohibition against ordaining noncelibate homosexuals, but it urged caution in disciplining congregations and clergy who ignore the ban.

At the same time, the church's Task Force for ELCA Studies on Sexuality called for no change in the denomination's practice of permitting local congregations to decide whether to bless the unions of same-sex couples.

It will be up to the 5 million-member denomination's Churchwide Assembly, its highest legislative body, to act on the panel's report in August.

Church leaders said yesterday's compromise recommendations were aimed at avoiding the divisions that came to a head last year in the worldwide Anglican Communion. In that case, the Episcopal Church ordained an openly gay priest in a committed same-sex relationship as Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire. In response, some other Anglican national churches in Africa, Southeast Asia and South America broke or downgraded their ties with the Episcopal Church, the self-governing U.S. branch of Anglicanism.

In the past year, three Evangelical Lutheran congregations have defied church law by hiring gay and lesbian ministers. Two of the congregations, Hollywood (Calif.) Lutheran Church, and Bethany Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, received letters of censure from their bishops. But a third congregation, Central City Lutheran Mission in San Bernardino, Calif., was stripped of its congregational status by the Pacifica Synod Council after hiring a lesbian minister who was in a committed same-sex relationship.

In its report, the Lutheran task force said that unity was as vital as a stand on sexual issues: "The God-given mission and communion we share is at least as important as the issues about which faithful conscience-bound Lutherans find themselves so decisively at odds."

The panel consulted widely with the Lutheran World Federation, the ELCA's ecumenical partners, and other Christian churches. The national task force said yesterday that after nearly four years of "painful and difficult" work, it hoped that local synods would consider a "pastoral response" instead of discipline to those who broke the church law.

"As a pastoral response to the deep divisions among us, 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 church] expectations, and to refrain from disciplining [clergy] so approved and called," it said.

The task force said room had to be allowed for conscience.

The national church already allows celibate homosexuals in the ministry.

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