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ELCA assembly slips—practicing gays in back door to pulpit

Betsy Carlson, editor

August 11, 2007:

photo of Betsy Carlson(Chicago) While the churchwide assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America shut the front door for now on allowing ministers in same-sex relationships to serve the denomination, they essentially told them to go to the back door and come in.

The assembly, meeting in Chicago this week, voted to refer most resolutions on homosexual behavior and ordination standards to a task force on human sexuality that is preparing a social statement for the 2009 churchwide assembly, thus taking the resolutions out of consideration at this assembly. More significantly, the assembly closed the front door when it defeated a resolution that would have changed the standards, allowing practicing homosexuals to become lay ministers and be ordained.

But the assembly opened the back door when it voted 538 to 431 to urge bishops, synods and the presiding bishop to refrain from disciplining pastors or lay ministers in committed same-sex relationships. This resolution was recommended by a discipline committee that defrocked a practicing homosexual but delayed enforcement until after the assembly and made clear its opinion that the standards needed loosening. Twenty-one synod assemblies had approved resolutions recommended by that discipline committee this spring.

"Some synodical bishops will use this as an excuse to ordain people in same-sex relationships and to certify lay ministers even though the 'Vision and Expectations' and 'Definitions and Guidelines' on ministry haven't changed. It's deceptive and lacks integrity," said Pastor Paull Spring, who is chair of Lutheran CORE, which along with WordAlone is working to renew and reform the ELCA.

WordAlone Network President Jaynan Clark Egland added: "I don't know as a Christian, as a pastor and as a parent what really would be worse--a church with no Biblical standards to govern our ministry or standards we don't intend to enforce. To refrain from discipline in the home is bad parenting, but we're about to do so in Christ's Church."

"Isn't this really a local option? Talk about introducing even more chaos to the ELCA's roster. Some bishops already are allowing people in same-sex relationships to serve. More may join them. But not all will look the other way and still may discipline. This leaves the ELCA with inconsistent patterns of discipline and standards, and possibly increases the church's liability in legal cases involving sexual impropriety," Egland said.

"The assembly spoke against making any change now by referring the main resolution on ordaining practicing homosexuals to the human sexuality study task force. It's a shame they opened this door allowing ordinations of persons in same-sex relationships," Spring commented.

The campaign to get homosexual behavior before the assembly prior to consideration of the social statement in 2009 seems to have started with an Atlanta, Ga., pastor's confession to his bishop that he, a known homosexual, had a "committed relationship" with another man. A discipline hearing was scheduled and held in early February.

The hearing committee ruled that the pastor was in violation of current ELCA standards and should be removed from the denomination's clergy roster, but delayed his removal until Aug. 15, after the assembly. The discipline committee also questioned the appropriateness and constitutionality of present ordination standards.

That committee also asked the ELCA's 65 synods to pass resolutions requesting the 2007 assembly to begin the process to change the standards to allow for non-celibate clergy and lay ministers. In addition the committee asked the synod assemblies to consider other resolutions for the churchwide assembly to go easy in the meantime on disciplining any ministers serving the church who are in homosexual relationships.  Both sides appealed the ruling.

In July, the appeals committee ruled that Brad Schmeling, the Atlanta pastor, should have been removed from the roster in February and removed him effective with their findings. The appeals group also chastised the discipline committee for overstepping its bounds by delaying the pastor's removal, for commenting on the standards and for asking this year's assembly to approve changing them.

About an hour before the assembly ended, when more than 400 voting members had departed, the assembly approved by a margin of 318 to 309 a motion that calls for ELCA bishops to discuss their accountability to the "adopted policies, practices and procedures" of the ELCA. The motion further directs the bishops to bring to the 2009 assembly a document that clarifies the lines of accountability. Perhaps the assembly realized it had voted for chaos earlier in the day by urging bishops not to uphold standards.