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denomination to vote on ordaining gays, blessing same-sex

denomination to vote on ordaining gays, blessing same-sex

The most divisive issue in American Protestantism will move to the forefront again this week as the 4.9 million-member Evangelical Lutheran Church in America takes a key vote on what role gays should have in the denomination.

About 1,000 church members will meet beginning Monday in Orlando, Fla.,where they'll decide whether to ordain gays who are not celibate and whether to bless same-sex unions.

No split is imminent. Conservative Lutherans have planned a November meeting to consider forming an association of like-minded churches--but within the ELCA.

Still, few Lutherans believe church members can reconcile their conflicting views of what the Bible says about homosexuality, and tensions rooted in years of wrangling over the issue are expected to spill over at the Churchwide Assembly, which runs through next Sunday.

Presiding bishop Mark Hanson, head of the Chicago-based denomination, expressed hope that the church would stay unified despite these differences. "I don't look to a tension-free church as the mark of a vital and healthy church in mission," Hanson said in a recent conference call with reporters. "I think, as a large church body, we have great capacity to be in mission together that is diminished when we are apart."

Turmoil over homosexuality in other Protestant churches is expected to influence the Lutheran vote. The starkest example is the Episcopal Church, which set off a crisis among fellow members of the Anglican Communion by confirming its first openly gay bishop--V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire--two years ago. Anglicans worldwide are now struggling to remain unified.

Another concern is whether a change in Lutheran policy would affect relations with other Christian groups and within the Lutheran World Federation, which represents 138 churches in 77 countries. Members of the association, which Hanson also leads, differ on gay issues.

The key proposals before the Orlando assembly are based on years of work by a denominational task force on sexuality that tried to find a compromise policy.

The measures would:

- Affirm the church ban on ordaining sexually active gays, but allow bishops and church districts, called synods, to seek an exception for a particular candidate if that person is in a committed relationship and meets other conditions.

- Uphold the denomination's prohibition against same-sex blessings, but give bishops and pastors discretion in deciding how to minister to gay couples.

- Call for unity, even though congregants disagree on the issue.

Despite this attempt to find a middle ground, the task force proposals failed to win support from Lutheran groups most active in the gay debate. Those on opposing sides plan, separately, to lobby against the measures on church policy.

The Reverend Roy Harrisville, of the conservative Solid Rock Lutherans, called the proposals "foolish." He and other conservatives said the changes, if adopted, would essentially overturn the ban on ordaining gays without explicitly saying so. "They recommended they have a rule and not enforce it. Well, that's just silly," Harrisville said.

The Reverend Jeff Johnson of Goodsoil, a coalition of Lutheran groups advocating full inclusion of gays, said the proposals would create a second-class roster of gay clergy that would be unjust. Goodsoil members will urge voters to abolish the ban outright.

"Gay and lesbian pastors want to be treated like other pastors and not run through a separate regime that will prove itself to be discriminatory," Johnson said.

The WordAlone Network of conservative churches says its research has found the majority of Lutherans hold traditional views of the Bible. Yet Johnson is convinced the ELCA will eventually approve ordaining gays. "It is clear to me that the trajectory among Lutherans is for inclusion and nondiscrimination, and that is where our church is headed," Johnson said.

Karl Donfried, a religion and Bible scholar at Smith College who is an ELCA pastor, emphasized that Lutherans elected to attend the assembly will be voting their conscience, not necessarily reflecting the views of their church district, making it difficult to speculate about the vote. "What happens in Orlando could take on its own momentum," said Donfried, who joined other conservative theologians in issuing a statement critical of the task force proposals.

Last month, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada voted against allowing local pastors to decide whether to bless same-sex couples. The other major U.S. Lutheran body, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, is staunchly conservative on gay issues. (AP)

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