Saying church unity is at least as important as resolving disagreements over sexuality, a panel recommended Thursday that the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America officially maintain its positions against same-sex blessing ceremonies and ministers involved in gay relationships but tolerate those who believe and act otherwise.
The Lutheran body, with 5 million members, is one of several mainline Protestant denominations torn over the place of gays and lesbians in the clergy and church. The panel's job was to issue recommendations on how to settle the dispute at the church's August assembly, though its conclusions are sure to be challenged by both the Right and the Left.
Existing Lutheran policy bans homosexual clergy involved with partners. Just in recent months, bishops expelled a congregation in San Bernardino, Calif., with a noncelibate lesbian associate pastor and censured another in Minneapolis that installed a gay associate pastor.
The bishops' conference opposes same-sex blessings, but its 1993 statement on the matter has been regarded as guidance rather than official policy, and the issue has provoked less rancor. Thursday's proposals, issued at Chicago headquarters, say the church:
--Should keep its policy against gay or lesbian relationships for clergy and lay ministers but "may choose to refrain from disciplining" ministers with same-sex partners and those who approve their employment. (The church allows gay and lesbian clerics if they are celibate.)
--Should "continue to respect" the bishops' statement against same-sex ceremonies. That statement goes on to say the bishops "express trust in" pastors and congregations and affirm "their desire to explore the best ways to provide pastoral care."
--A third recommendation says "the God-given mission and communion we share is at least as important as the issues" about which Lutherans are "decisively at odds." It asks members to find "ways to live together faithfully in the midst of our disagreements."
The report acknowledges that the church faces a deep and "pervasive" disagreement over homosexuality and says Christians who follow the Bible reach different conclusions on Christianity's traditional opposition to gay sex. The panel also insists that its recommendations "do not establish new policy or change existing policy."
Emily Eastwood, spokeswoman for the Lutheran Alliance for Full Participation, said the six organizations that make up her group felt "profound sadness and dismay" at the recommendations. "It sends a pretty loud message to gays and lesbians that this church, at this time, is going to legitimize selective discrimination while claiming to welcome them," she said.
The Reverend James Childs Jr., an ethics professor at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus, Ohio, who directed the project, said the panel's approach favors "pastoral discretion" over legislation. He said the panel understands that some people won't be happy with the results. "We're aware of the fact that there are people for whom this has been a very painful matter and that pain was not dissipated by this report," he said. "We're conscious of that and care about it."
The 14-member panel of clergy, seminary professors, and lay people also said it was divided. A few members favored a more conservative policy, and a few wanted to relax church rules.
The panel's chair, Bishop Margaret Payne, said that "there's no way of knowing" how many ELCA congregations provide same-sex blessing ceremonies but that the report underscores that Lutheran marriage is only between a man and a woman, regardless of secular laws. She said that in the New England Synod she heads, pastors support gay and lesbian couples through private prayer services rather than formal church rituals.
Payne said that if the panel's recommendations are adopted, bishops of the 65 synods might follow differing policies toward gay and lesbian ministers who have partners. "We will work on this," she said. "We will not allow this to divide us."
But the ELCA now joins the Presbyterian Church (USA) and Episcopal Church in the divisive struggle over sexuality. The United Methodist Church has also debated lifting its bans on gay clergy and ceremonies but strongly reaffirmed traditionalist positions at its conference last year. The nation's other major Lutheran body, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, is staunchly conservative regarding homosexuality and other matters.