With their leaders pleading for unity, the nation's largest Lutheran denomination is poised to vote today on proposals that could ease prohibitions on ordaining practicing homosexuals and blessing same-sex couples, as some members argue over whether the church might be going too far.
No formal split in the 5 million-member Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is foreseen, but groups on both sides of the debate plan to meet after the national assembly in Orlando, Fla., adjourns Sunday to discuss the results and consider their options.
A thousand voters representing the membership will decide the questions that have opened painful divisions within the Episcopal Church USA and other denominations.
"There's very strong feelings on both sides," said Donna Kent, vice president of the Delaware-Maryland Synod of the Evangelical Lutherans and a voter at the assembly.
"My personal hope is that no matter what is decided here that we remain united and that it doesn't overpower the work that needs to be done."
The Evangelical Lutheran Church has officially welcomed gay and lesbian members since 1991, but it prohibits ordaining sexually active homosexual ministers and blessing same-sex couples.
Some church members have campaigned to lift those restrictions; others want them maintained. The proposals under consideration, presented as compromise positions this year by a denominational task force, seem to satisfy neither side.
One would uphold the ban on ordaining active gay clergy but would allow bishops to make exceptions for those in committed relationships. The other would maintain the prohibition on blessing same-sex couples but allow pastors discretion in how they chose to minister to them.
Both sides are expected to try to amend the proposals during debate today.
To those who oppose giving actively gay members an ecclesiastical role in the church, the measures go too far.
"The proposals ask us, a Christian church, to say that it's OK for some people to engage in sinful behavior," said the Rev. Mark Chavez, a Minnesota pastor and director of the conservative WordAlone Network. "Any Christian church that does that is just playing with fire."
Those who support a greater role for gay members say the proposals don't go far enough.
"The current ELCA position of discrimination destroys faith and ruins lives, and must be abolished," said the Rev. Jeff Johnson, a chaplain at the University of California at Berkeley and co-chair of the liberal group Goodsoil. "The current policy of discrimination is not consonant with the Lutheran church's commitment to inclusion and full participation, justice and equality."
Both sides use the Bible to bolster their arguments.
"Scripture specifically calls us to the place where we would provide for all members of the body of Christ who are called by God to be in places of ministry," Johnson said.
Chavez said that that position will divide the church.
"It's not OK to say that there are two completely contradictory interpretations of Scripture regarding whether or not it's OK to have a sexual relationship outside of the marriage of one man and one woman," he said. "It's foolish to think that a denomination can hold together with those two different interpretations."
Bishop H. Gerard Knoche, leader of the Delaware-Maryland Synod, which has 92,000 members in 186 congregations, favors the restrictions.
"I don't believe that the church is ready for change, and I personally am wishing to maintain the traditional point of view," he said. "I'm certainly supportive of our present policy, which allows people of homosexual orientation to serve in the church if they are committed to celibacy."
Kent, the synod vice president, said this week that she was unsure how she would vote.
"We have spent so much time in preparation of this vote and this discussion, and I've tried to keep an open mind, and yet I still feel myself at a loss as to which way to vote," she said.
The question of whether homosexuality is a sin and what roles, if any, homosexuals should play have opened deep rifts within Protestant churches and between denominations.
The ordination of an openly gay bishop in 2003 has split the Episcopal Church USA from the global Anglican Communion.
Last month, the United Church of Christ, which has ordained gay ministers and has blessed same-sex couples for years, endorsed civil unions for gay partners.
Two smaller Lutheran denominations, the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod and the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, do not ordain practicing homosexuals.
At the heart of the debate is a "crisis of authority," said David C. Steinmetz, a professor the Duke Divinity School in North Carolina.
"By what norms, by what rules do churches arrive at judgments about what they ought to do in the present?" said Steinmetz, a United Methodist minister who specializes in the history of Christianity. "The Bible doesn't get up and talk to people. It's always interpreted by folk."
Knoche has been frustrated by the focus on homosexuality.
"That's the only thing that seems to make the headlines, when a lot of other things may in the long run be more significant," he said. "We're tired of talking about this. Let's get on with other things."