Lutheran Churchwide Assembly adopts statement on sexuality

August 20, 2009

The Churchwide Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) by a two-thirds majority August 19 approved a theological statement addressing human sexuality, setting the stage for an anticipated vote Friday on whether to allow pastors in committed same-sex relationships to serve in local congregations. "Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust" was adopted 676 to 338 by assembly participants, meeting August 17-23 in Minneapolis. About 2,000 participants are attending the assembly, the chief legislative authority of the ELCA, themed "God's work. Our hands." Of those, 1,045 are eligible to vote. The 34-page document addresses a spectrum of topics related to human sexuality, including questions such as "how do we understand human sexuality within the context of Jesus' invitation to love God and love our neighbor?" It attempts to create a theological framework for disagreements within the ELCA over homosexuality and other scriptural matters relating to human sexuality. ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark S. Hanson told the gathering that such social statements, "guide us as we step forward as a public church because they form the basis for both this church's public policy and my public speech as presiding bishop." Prior to the vote, an ad hoc committee addressed 13 proposals to amend the social statement from voting members and 42 "memorials" or resolutions from the 65 synods of the ELCA. They ranged from editorial amendments to changing the intent and coherence of the existing text. Bishop Christopher Epting, Deputy to Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori for Ecumenical and Interreligious Relations, praised the ELCA vote. "They've done a really fine job on their social statement. It was a very careful job and it will be a usable resource for the ecumenical community," said Epting. Noting that the Episcopal Church and ELCA are in full communion, he said that he was among a broad group of ecumenical partners with whom the Lutherans consulted before proceeding with drafting the statement. "We met with the ELCA leadership and shared where our various churches are on the issue, including the Roman Catholic Church." Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust "needed a two-thirds vote to pass and it passed narrowly, by one or two votes, but you could say it's a huge vote," he added. The upcoming vote Friday will determine how the statement will be implemented, he said. Passage of the statement drew mixed reaction within ELCA ranks, according to statements posted on the church's news website. The Rev. Peter Strommen told a media gathering after the plenary session that the church "took some risks in the writing of this in ways that we thought were appropriate for these times." He had served as chair of the Task Force for ELCA Studies on Sexuality, which developed the social statement under the directive of the 2001 ELCA Churchwide Assembly. "I am very proud of this church," the Rev. Rebecca S. Larson, executive director, ELCA Church in Society, said at the news conference. "It is a time of diminished joy," she said. "We know there is suffering all around on this issue." But the Rev. Paull Spring, chair of Lutheran CORE, a coalition of conservative ELCA Lutherans, said, "We mourn the decision by the Churchwide Assembly to reject the clear teaching of the Bible that God's intention for marriage is the relationship of one man and one woman." Spring, of State College, Pa., a former bishop in the ELCA, added "It is tragic that such a large number of ELCA members were willing to overturn the clear teaching of the Bible as it has been believed and confessed by Christians for nearly 2,000 years." The Rev. Erma Wolf of Brandon, South Dakota, vice-chair of CORE, called it "a sad day for Lutherans in the United States. "The ELCA is a very divided church," she said, "This decision divides us even more. It is going to be very hard for faithful Lutherans to support the ELCA when the ELCA is willing to reject the clear teaching of Scripture." Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust also seeks to provide a way forward for those who disagree: "as we live with disagreement, the people in this church will continue to accompany one another in study, prayer, discernment, pastoral care, and mutual respect."