ELCA Synods Report Findings and Decisions on Sexuality

( [email protected] ) Jul 01, 2004 11:14 AM EDT

With only one year remaining before the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) decides on whether or not to ordain active homosexuals, several synods (districts) addressed a series of concerns related to the denomination’s studies on Sexuality.

Currently, the ELCA has no strict laws that prohibit the ordination of practicing homosexuals. However, in 1993, the ELCA Conference of Bishops stated that neither gay ordinations nor same-sex "marriage" blessings are approved by the council. Additionally, the church established a series of “visions and expectations” which calls on all ordained ministers to refrain from all sexual relations outside of marriage, and homosexual ministers to remain celibate. People outside of the “visions and expectations” are not allowed on the clergy roster, and are not recognized by the national ELCA board.

Recently, churches in several synods deliberately defied the “visions and expectations” of the ELCA by bringing in active homosexuals to lead their congregations. In each case, the national church did nothing to stop the ordination, and left the issue up to the local synod bishops to discipline the churches. While bishops have the authority to suspend or even expel the rebellious churches, most have resorted to letters of reprimand – the lightest form of punishment listed for the charge.

At that end, many conservatives in the ELCA have called for the strengthening of the “visions and expectations” while liberals have opposed it completely.

The 2001 ELCA Churchwide Assembly therefore mandated a study process on the issue, with an expected due date of 2005; assembly members will decide on whether or not active homosexual should be ordained and whether or not the ELCA should have an official policy on blessing same-gender relationships. In addition, a task force assigned to the studies is to develop a proposed social statement on human sexuality for the assembly to consider in 2007.

With such decisions to be finalized next year, this year’s synodical assemblies undoubtedly hold great weight. To date, some ¾ of the ELCA synods reported their decisions and findings on sexuality. These assemblies addressed topics “such as scriptural references, pre-marital sex, people who are gay and lesbian serving in church leadership positions, ratification of constitutional amendments, prohibiting policies to allow blessings of same-gender relationships, development of guidelines for clergy in same-gender relationships, support for specific congregations and programs, and church unity in the wake of sexuality policy decisions to be made in the future,” according to the ELCA news service. Not surprisingly, opinions varied greatly from synod to synod, with some synods calling for a complete restoration of biblical ordination standards and others calling for the ordination of all “committed” individuals – heterosexual and homosexual alike.

The following is the list of assembly decisions and actions, as reported to the National ELCA synod by June 21:

+ Scriptural References and Authority: The Northwest Washington Synod assembly sent a memorial to the churchwide assembly that said: "We hold what the Holy Bible says is normative and authoritative and that all considerations in matters of faith and morality based on other sources such as church doctrine, contemporary experience and knowledge never be granted equal or greater importance than that of the Holy Bible."

The Central/Southern Illinois Synod assembly affirmed "that proper procedure for the proclamation of the gospel begins with letting Holy Scripture speak for itself" and that "pastors and bishops of this synod be encouraged as they continue striving for fidelity to the Holy Scriptures, creeds and confessions in their proclamation, faith and life."

+ Premarital sex: The Southwestern Texas Synod assembly sent a resolution to the ELCA Church Council that stated only sexual intercourse between those who are married is acceptable.

+ People who are gay and lesbian in church leadership: The Northern Texas-Northern Louisiana Synod assembly asked the ELCA Churchwide Assembly to oppose allowing people "participating in homosexual relationships to hold positions of leadership, particularly bishops or pastors in the ELCA."

+ Same-sex lifestyles: The North Carolina Synod assembly asked the ELCA Church Council to "provide guidance, materials and support for local parishes that want to offer a Christian ministry specifically for persons who want to exit same-sex lifestyles."

+ ELCA Studies on Sexuality: Five synod assemblies -- Northwestern Minnesota, Northern Texas-Northern Louisiana, Montana, Indiana-Kentucky and South Dakota -- asked the churchwide assembly to affirm scriptural principles and recommend no change to policies in "Vision and Expectations," the ELCA policy document that states standards for professional leaders in the ELCA. The South Carolina Synod assembly went on record affirming current ELCA policy.

The North Carolina Synod assembly called for completion of the four-year study process without further delay; the Southwestern Pennsylvania Synod assembly directed its synod council to petition the ELCA presiding bishop and ELCA Conference of Bishops to "take whatever steps are necessary to delay the vote at the 2005 Churchwide Assembly" on sexuality issues until the adoption of a social statement on human sexuality. The La Crosse (Wis.) Area Synod said it would refrain from adopting a position on the sexuality issues until the task force releases its report and recommendations.

+ American Lutheran Church (ALC) social statement: The South Dakota Synod assembly asked the ELCA to affirm the former ALC statement on "Human Sexuality and Sexual Behavior," and "to adopt no change in current ELCA policies regarding the blessing of same-sex unions" and ordinations. The resolution also directed the synod bishop to communicate this to the ELCA Conference of Bishops.

+ Social Policy: The Central/Southern Illinois Synod sent a resolution to the ELCA Church Council suggesting that to "revise established teaching and policy regarding blessing of same-gender relationships and/or rostering of approved candidates who are in committed same-gender relationships" be considered as "exceptional social policy resolution(s)." It said that such resolution(s) should require "accompanying supporting foundational theological material and [a] two-thirds vote for adoption."

+ Consulting with partner churches: The Indiana-Kentucky Synod assembly requested that the churchwide assembly ask that the sexuality studies task force consult with partner churches on issues of ordaining people who are gay and lesbian and in committed relationships, and blessing of same-gender relationships.

+ Ratification of constitutional amendments: The Montana Synod assembly and the South Dakota Synod assembly adopted resolutions that said amendments to the ELCA Constitution and Bylaws ought to be ratified by three-fourths of the ELCA synods in assembly or a majority of congregations within one calendar year. The South Dakota Synod assembly also memorialized the churchwide assembly to "initiate action that would call upon each congregation of the ELCA to ratify any decision regarding the blessing of same-sex unions and/or rostering of non-celibate gay and lesbian persons." The Eastern North Dakota Synod assembly memorialized the churchwide assembly to initiate action that each congregation be asked to ratify within a 12-month period decisions on same-gender blessings and rostering of gay and lesbian people in committed relationships.

+ Two-thirds majority: The Indiana-Kentucky Synod and Eastern North Dakota Synod assemblies suggested that changes in polices on ordination standards be adopted only by a two-thirds majority vote by the ELCA Church Council and 2005 Churchwide Assembly.

+ Consecration of a non-celibate homosexual bishop: The North Carolina Synod assembly resolved that the synod secretary "communicate to the Episcopal Church local diocese by letter this synod's deepest regret and concern with its action consecrating a non-celibate homosexual person as bishop."

+ Participation in ELCA Studies on Sexuality: Many synods that addressed the studies adopted resolutions encouraging members to participate by using study materials provided by the church.

+ Church unity: The Northeastern Ohio Synod assembly and the Northern Texas-Northern Louisiana Synod assembly adopted resolutions noting that "unity shared at the font and around the table" will not be broken by differing perspectives on human sexuality.

+ Guidelines for candidates for ordained ministry: The Alaska Synod assembly adopted a resolution to appoint a task force to prepare written guidelines for working with candidates for "called ministry," and those guidelines are to address candidates or clergy in same-gender relationships. The assembly also directed the synod council to submit the resolution to the ELCA Church Council as a model for future consideration.

+ Support for civil marriage: The Sierra Pacific Synod assembly adopted a resolution that said it "supports efforts to make civil marriage for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) couples a reality in our country, and opposes any attempt to discriminate against GLBT couples and individuals." The Metropolitan New York Synod assembly said it "endorses and supports recognition of and legislation to provide for gay and lesbian persons to receive the status, benefits and restrictions, and responsibilities of marriage conferred upon heterosexual persons under civil law; and … opposes efforts to ban, limit or overturn the full civil recognition of same-sex relationships."

+ Support for congregations and Extraordinary Candidacy Project (ECP): The Sierra Pacific Synod assembly invited two congregations -- St. Francis Lutheran Church and First United Lutheran Church, both in San Francisco -- to apply for full membership in the synod and urged the Sierra Pacific Synod Council to accept their applications. The two congregations were expelled from the ELCA Dec. 31, 1995, for calling pastors who were not in compliance with ELCA clergy standards. The synod assembly also said it will maintain a list of significant dates of Extraordinary Candidacy project pastors serving congregations of the synod, honor pastors on anniversaries, and it directed that all official directories/lists published will list name of ECP pastors. ECP is an organization outside the ELCA that was formed "to promote the full participation of sexual minority persons in the professional life of the Lutheran church," according to its purpose statement.