Conference addresses sexuality issues facing Lutherans

May 14, 2003

People who are gay or lesbian must be welcomed by the church without reservation, say two former bishops of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). The denomination should make every effort to find a way to do so without causing division among its members, they added.

The Rev. Herbert W. Chilstrom, a retired ELCA pastor who was the church's first presiding bishop, and the Rev. Lowell O. Erdahl, former bishop of the ELCA Saint Paul Area Synod, spoke at a conference April 4-6 at St. Olaf College, Northfield, Minnesota.

The conference, "Sexuality, Spirituality and the Church," drew more than 240 registered participants, and focused largely on issues of ordaining people who are gay or lesbian and blessings of same-gender relationships.

"I do not want to do anything to destroy the unity of our ELCA," Chilstrom told the participants. "So that raises the question for some: 'Why would you spend time trying to open minds in an area where you know there is going to be division and disunity and even potential for schism?' The only answer I can give to that question is: justice. Slowly but surely I came to the conclusion that there were significant numbers of people in the ELCA who were being pushed aside, ignored and in some cases deliberately discriminated against."

Shifting views

Scripture and science must be handled carefully in church discussions regarding homosexuality, Erdahl said. Pointing to passages in both the New and Old Testaments, he said, "I don't think those texts say anything about homosexuality as we understand it today." In particular, he added, the Bible seems not to address the issue of people who are gay or lesbian in committed relationships.

Erdahl also discounted the value of "balanced" viewpoints in scientific discussions on homosexuality. "If there were a medical conference held on the treatment of diabetes, I don't think the planners would require that equal time be given to discussion of practices that were common before the discovery of insulin," he said.

"The medical profession has learned a great deal about diabetes in the last hundred years." Likewise, he said, scientific views on homosexuality have shifted considerably in the last century.

The conference--which included lectures, panel discussions, two worship services and a screening of a documentary film on a recent ordination in St. Paul--was funded with a grant from the Philip N. Knutson Endowment. The conference drew Lutheran clergy and laity, including students from several ELCA colleges.

Clinical and abstract?

"There are no positive role models in the church for young gay people today," said Jonathan Welch, a 20-year-old student at Concordia College, Moorhead, Minnesota. He said he was surprised at the number of parents attending the conference who eagerly showed him pictures of their gay sons and lesbian daughters. "It gives me hope" for the church, Welch said.

But Valerie Veo, a St. Olaf sophomore from Litchfield, Minnesota, who wore a "Straight But Not Narrow" button, said she was concerned that the ELCA's approach to studying sexuality was "clinical and too abstract." She said, "We lose sight of what it really means and that it has ramifications for real people and real lives."

The Rev. Barbara K. Lundblad, associate professor at Union Theological Seminary, New York, and conference speaker, said the church has always had difficulty talking about sexuality of any stripe. "We've had to check our bodies at the door for centuries," she said, citing the influence of gnostic dualism on early Christian teachings. "So it's hard to know how to talk about sex in the context of spirituality."

Several conference speakers argued that committed relationships among people who are gay or lesbian should be encouraged and blessed by the church. Lundblad took issue with the idea that recognizing gay relationships could lead to the degradation of marriage. "A lot of things ruin marriages, but homosexuality is hardly ever on the list," she said.

"Alcohol, economics, abuse, family difficulties, religious quarrels--we could probably name 50 things that are really damaging to marriage, but homosexuality is rarely the problem."

Ordination issue

The ordination of people who are gay or lesbian in committed relationships was another theme that surfaced repeatedly during the conference. Chilstrom noted that the ELCA has no ban on homosexuals in committed relationships serving as organists, Sunday school teachers and even lay ministers in the church, yet it denies them pastoral appointments.

Anita Hill, who lives in a committed relationship and serves at St. Paul Reformation Church in St. Paul, spoke about her long and persistent effort to become ordained. Called to serve as a pastor and installed in 2001, she is not in compliance with the ELCA's expectations for clergy, and her ordination is not recognized by the ELCA.

Hill, whose story is the subject of the video documentary "THIS obedience," indicated she sometimes grew skeptical about the ELCA's ability to reconcile matters of ordination of people who are gay or lesbian, and blessings. "But God's love is too powerful for doubts to win the day," she added.

The Rev. James M. Childs Jr., professor at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus, Ohio, and director for the ELCA Studies on Sexuality, also addressed the conference. He and a task force are charged with executing two actions mandated by the 2001 Churchwide Assembly. The first is to lead a churchwide dialogue on the blessing of same-gender relationships and the ordination of people who are gay and lesbian and are in committed relationships.

The second is to lead the development of a social statement on sexuality. Upcoming ELCA churchwide assemblies are scheduled to take up these matters in 2005 and 2007.

Childs said the task force has received letters and e-mails from roughly 1,000 people since the studies began. "The important thing is for people to share their opinions on these issues," Childs said, "rather than forcing any congregation to take a vote."