On divisive issue of gay clergy, two churches weigh softer stance

Lutherans and Presbyterians may allow local congregations to choose people in same-sex relationships as pastors.

Two mainline Protestant denominations, after decades of wrestling over the place of homosexuality in the church, are considering allowing local congregations to select pastors who are in long-term, monogamous, same-gender relationships.

The church council of the largest Lutheran body in the US, the 5-million-member Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA), decided this week to send such a recommendation to its national assembly. The proposal would take effect if supported by majority vote at the assembly's biennial meeting in August.

The 2.3-million-member Presbyterian Church (USA) approved the idea at its national assembly last summer, but a majority of the church's 173 district bodies, called presbyteries, must vote in favor by June for it to become church policy.

While it's not clear that either denomination will embrace the change, their actions reflect the shifting views on homosexuality in society, as well as an acknowledgement that the old consensus in the churches has broken down and a new one is not likely to arise soon. The churches are seeking to accommodate differing views and avoid a denominational split.

"There is no question that attitudes have shifted in the church in the way in which this issue has been interpreted theologically," says the Rev. Peter Strommen, chairman of the ELCA task force for studies on sexuality, which developed the recommendation.

"People of sincere faith are coming to different, strongly held conclusions" based on different interpretations of scripture and tradition, he said during a Tuesday teleconference with reporters. "It's hard to imagine that as being possible 15 years ago."

The task force has spent eight years developing a new "social statement" on human sexuality to serve as a theological and teaching document of the church, and in the process, it held more than 100 public hearings. In 2007, the national assembly asked the group to also recommend changes to any policies "precluding homosexual persons" from church leadership.

As society has grappled with the hot-button issues of civil unions and gay marriage, some mainline pastors and churches, such as the United Church of Christ, have moved to support gay unions and gays in church leadership. But most churches have been wracked with controversy, often spurring losses in membership.

For its part, the Episcopal Church has seen some traditionalists pull out since it approved the consecration of a gay bishop in 2003. They have formed a new Anglican body in the US that affirms homosexuality as "incompatible with scripture."

The ELCA and Presbyterian Church (USA) have permitted the ordination of gays, but the clergy must remain celibate. Some clergy have challenged the stand, to varying consequences. At the 2007 assembly, a number of Lutheran clergy publicly introduced their partners.

The ELCA task force has proposed a four-step process that first calls on the church to decide whether it wants to find ways "to recognize, support, and hold publicly accountable lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships." If so, then the assembly would consider whether the church was committed to allowing individuals in such relationships to serve as clergy, before voting on the idea of a "structured flexibility" for congregations and regional bodies in calling gays to serve.

The proposal also puts a premium on how church members relate to one another given the breakdown in consensus. "People have reached different conclusions for good reasons, and those on both sides have very credible arguments," Dr. Strommen says. The task force's social statement describes a theologically based commitment to respect the conscience of others, and calls on members to "live in civility and love."

Those seeking full inclusion of gays within the church are both pleased and disappointed.

"For the first time in the history of our church, a recommendation for the elimination of the policy of discrimination against ministers in same-gender relationships will come" before the assembly, says Emily Eastwood, executive director of Lutherans Concerned/North America. This is a "major step for justice and equality."

But the group also highlights the failure to endorse a rite of same-gender blessing for marriage. "The church cannot rightly expect monogamy without offering a rite of marriage to same-gender couples," Ms. Eastwood says.

Among the Presbyterians, the constitutional amendment to allow for partnered clergy is not faring well. So far, 114 of the 173 districts have voted, with 73 of them opposing the change. Yet 19 districts that voted against gay clergy issues in the past have voted in favor this time, and some of the more liberal presbyteries have yet to vote.

In the Presbyterian Church (USA), clergy may bless same-gender unions as long as the relationship is not equated with marriage. The church recently set up a committee to consider the place that same-sex unions should have in Christianity and report by 2010.

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