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ELCA panel urges church to allow clergy to live in gay, lesbian relationships

In what promises to be a controversial move unprecedented in the history of Lutheranism in the United States, a national task force of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America recommends that the nation's largest Lutheran denomination change its policy and allow homosexual clergy to live in "committed, same-gender relationships."

The report, made public at noon today, is the result of years of study, wrangling and revising of official statements.

According to an ELCA news release, "The report focuses on changing the policy that 'ordained ministers who are homosexual in their self-understanding are expected to abstain from homosexual sexual relationships," - as stated in the ELCA's 'Vision and Expectations,' for ordained ministers."

The task force's recommendations are expected to be voted on by the ELCA's biennial national assembly in mid-August in Minneapolis.

Only one U.S. Christian denomination, the United Church of Christ, has wholly and officially supported clergy living in homosexual relationships. Within the Episcopal and Presbyterian churches it's widely held that, as in the ELCA in recent years, such relationships by clergy have been tacitly allowed in some cases. The ordination of a gay man in a relationship with another man as an Episcopal bishop has threatened to split apart the worldwide Anglican Communion.

The ELCA's policy now is that gay and lesbian clergy are expected, as are unmarried heterosexual clergy, to abstain from sexual relationships.

The 15-member task force said it's clear there is not consensus within the 4.9-million-member denomination based in Chicago.

The ELCA and its predecessor denominations have long wrestled with issues of sexuality and changing societal mores, as have all religious groups. But an official recommendation to allow pastors to live in homosexual relationships is a big step. The other large Lutheran denomination in the United States, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, doesn't have the issue on its radar; whether to allow women to be clergy is more of a current debate within the 2.5-million-member LCMS and there is little chance of that happening any time soon.

The greater Red River Valley region is the most ELCA-prone in the country; about 25 to 30 percent of the population belongs to the ELCA. North Dakota has 170,000 ELCA members; Minnesota about 822,000.

"Through careful listening to this church and to one another, task force members share a sober appreciation for the depth of disagreement on this matter," said the Rev. Peter Strommen, a pastor in Prior Lake, Minn., who chaired the 15-member task force that was directed by the ELCA's 2007 national convention to study the issue and give recommendations. "We also share a longing for church unity. Our hope is that a way can be found to live in the unity of the gospel amid our differences."

One pastor told the Herald that some clergy have said they would leave the ELCA if the policy prohibiting sexual relationships outside of marriage was changed.

Others welcome the change and have worked for it.

The Rev. Mary Albing, a former Grand Forks pastor, came out as a lesbian several years ago, entering a relationship with another woman from Grand Forks and has been working in a Twin Cities congregation. In a book several years ago, Albing wrote of the difficulty of feeling called by God to be a Lutheran pastor and also realizing she is a lesbian but then, not being allowed, officially, to serve as a minister.

The task force's recommendations include asking the churchwide assembly in August if "it is committed to finding ways to allow congregations and synods that choose to do so to recognize, support and hold publicly accountable lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships," according to the news release's account of the report.

This oft-called "local option," allowing congregations or regional synods to decide the issue on their own has been criticized by those opposing change as a violation of ELCA traditions and an irresponsible way to handle such a controversial subject.

Supporters of such "local options," see it as a way to keep the ELCA together despite wide differences over the issue. The sensibility of ELCA congregations in, say, San Franscisco, is understandably very different from that of ELCA congregations in, say, western South Dakota, the argument goes.

The task force says a second step would be asking the hundreds of delegates at the assembly "whether it is committed to finding a way for Lutherans in committed, same-gender relationshps to serve as ELCA professional leaders - clergy, associates in minisry, diaconal ministers and deaconesses."

The task force also released today a larger document, a proposed social statement on sexuality, also to be presented for a vote at the national assembly.

The task force's work will be reviewed in March by the ELCA's Church Council, which could make changes; it then will be forwarded on to be on the agenda of the national assembly in August.

Regional synods hold their annual assemblies in coming months and many are expected to pass resolutions about the task force's recommendations, said Bishop Bill Rindy, head of the Eastern North Dakota Synod.

Rindy will meet this afternoon with area pastors in Calvary Lutheran Church in Grand Forks. He met this morning with a large group of his pastors in Fargo and will hold three more such meetings by Friday night across the synod of 250 congregations.

More than simply recommending a change in ELCA policy, the task force "is providing a way for the church to figure out where the church is in this process," Rindy told the Herald today in his first public comments on the report since the embargo was lifted at noon. "And at the same time, provide a way for change if that's the direction the church wants to move."

The four-step process recommended by the task force first asks the church-wide assembly "to try to find out if the church is at a place where it's ready for some congregations and some synods to choose" to affirm gay and lesbian commitments for ministers, Rindy said. If the vote were to be "no," on that step, the process would stop, he said.

For him, the spirit of the report is clearly that all involved in the issue respect the view points and convictions of others on this issue, Rindy said.

The Rev. Chad Brucklacher, pastor of Christus Rex Lutheran Campus Center at UND, welcomed the report.

"I have read through some of it and it seems like it will be a good background for some good conversations." he said today shortly before going to the meeting with Bishop Rindy. "The conversation is the most important part of the process because it's clear there is such a wide disparity of feeling across the spectrum, as far as pastors and congregations are related to this issue."

He said at Christus Rex "we try to be affirming of lots of different groups, including gays and lesbians and try to find inclusion of all kinds of people who are in the church."

But it hasn't been a hot topic among his mostly student flock, he said.

During a study in Christus Rex last fall of the ELCA's draft statement on human sexuality, there was much more "intriguing" discussion over heterosexual relationships and topics such as premarital sex and dating issues, he said.

But how ever the issue is decided by the whole church in August, it will have a big effect one way or another, because of the strong beliefs on all sides, Brucklacher said.

"I want to believe ultimately there is something bigger than just the sides of the issue, that this is God's church and God will hold us together and help us grow together."

Both documents can be seen online at