The 2009 Churchwide Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) on August 21 approved opening the ministry of the church to pastors and other professional workers living in committed same-gender relationships.
The resolution passed by a vote of 559 to 451 and overturns previous church policy that prohibited participation of gays and lesbians in church ministries unless they were celibate.
Discussions about human sexuality have dominated the August 17-23 assembly in Minneapolis, the chief legislative authority of the 4.6 million-member denomination. More than half, or about 1,045, of the 2,000 participants are voting members at the gathering, themed "God's work. Our hands."
The assembly also approved a resolution committing the church to find ways for congregations that choose to do so to "recognize, support and hold publicly accountable life-long, monogamous, same-gender relationships." It did not use the word "marriage." It also approved, by a vote of 771-230, a resolution committing the church to respect the differences of opinions on the matter and honor the "bound consciences" of those who disagree.
ELCA shares a full-communion relationship with The Episcopal Church, which asserted the openess of its ordination process to gays and lesbians (Resolution D025) and called for "generous pastoral response" for the blessing of same-gender relationships (Resolution C056) at its July 8-17 General Convention in Anaheim, California.
"Our sisters and brothers of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America have just completed the kind of thoughtful, respectful and yet painful dialogue on the place of gay and lesbian persons in their church that we in The Episcopal Church have been, and are, engaged," said Bishop Christopher Epting, the Presiding Bishop's Deputy for Ecumenical and Interreligious Relations. "The fact that the ELCA produced a social statement on human sexuality first and then made decisions about the implication of that statement reveals that it is possible to reach similar conclusions by different methods. It is my prayer that their process may preserve the unity of the ELCA while moving toward the kind of full inclusion for which many have hoped and worked for so long."
The ELCA actions where hailed by Integrity USA, a gay and lesbian advocacy group in the Episcopal community, as a victory for full inclusion.
"Today's action in Minneapolis is not just good news for gay and lesbian Lutherans, it is good news to all who strive for peace and justice and are committed to respecting the dignity of every human being," said the Rev. Susan Russell, president of Integrity USA.
"For decades the faithful have prayed for justice to roll down like waters for the LGBT baptized in the Lutheran and Episcopal churches. The summer of 2009 has become that watershed moment we have prayed for."
"We are delighted that our Lutheran brothers and sisters in Christ are joining The Episcopal Church in moving forward in mission with a commitment to include all God's beloved equally. We look forward to opportunities to continue in our call to common mission with our Lutheran colleagues as we join together in proclaiming the Good News of God in Christ Jesus available to all."
ELCA deliberations were at times contentious. During the discussions, led by ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark S. Hanson, the delegates paused several times each hour for prayer, sometimes as a whole assembly, sometimes in small groups around the tables where the voting members sat, debated and cast their votes, according to the denomination's website.
A resolution to reassert the church's current policy was defeated, 670 to 344.
"I cannot see how the church that I have known for 40 years can condone what God has condemned," Pastor Richard Mahan of the ELCA West Virginia-Western Maryland Synod told the gathering. "Nowhere does it say in scripture that homosexuality and same-sex marriage is acceptable of God."
But others said a greater acceptance of people who are gay and lesbian in the church was consistent with Scripture.
Bishop Gary Wollersheim of the ELCA Northern Illinois Synod said, "It's a matter of justice, a matter of hospitality, it's what Jesus would have us do."
During discussion of resolutions on implementation of the proposals, Bishop Kurt Kusserow of the ELCA Southwestern Pennsylvania Synod asked that the church make clear provision in its policies to recognize the conviction of members who believe that this church cannot call or roster people in a publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationship.
A resolution that the denomination consider a proposal for how it will exercise flexibility within its existing structure and practices to allow Lutherans in same gender relationship to be approved for professional service in the church was approved 667 to 307.
In other action, the ELCA assembly adopted by a vote of 958-51 a full communion agreement with the United Methodist Church. This is the ELCA's sixth full communion relationship and the first for the UMC.
At its recent General Convention, the Episcopal Church reaffirmed its ongoing dialogue with the United Methodist Church, which includes interim eucharistic sharing.