From the Worldwide Faith News archives

ELCA Task Force Wants Church to Talk about Sexuality

From News News <NEWS@ELCA.ORG>
Date Thu, 13 Feb 2003 16:28:09 -0600


February 13, 2003


     CHICAGO (ELCA) -- "The vast majority of this church has chosen not
to be involved in this work," the Rev. Mark S. Hanson, presiding bishop
of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), told the church's
Studies on Sexuality Task Force when it met here Feb. 7-9.  The task
force assembled two panels of consultants as it prepared study materials
to start the ELCA's 5.1 million members talking about blessing same-
gender relationships and accepting ministers in such relationships.
     Hanson spoke briefly to open the meeting.	He said, while making
visits across the church, he sensed a reluctance among Lutherans to talk
in their churches or their homes about sexuality.
     The bishop encouraged the task force to reverse that trend and
return the topic of sexuality to "the culture of faith."  Hanson said,
"Take the moment, as uncomfortable as it is."
     The ELCA is conducting studies of sexuality at the direction of
its 2001 Churchwide Assembly.  The assembly is the church's chief
legislative authority.
     A purpose of the studies is to pose recommendations to the 2005
Churchwide Assembly on a policy on blessing same-gender relationships
and on having people in such relationships as lay or ordained ministers.
Another purpose is to develop a social statement on human sexuality that
may be considered in 2007.
     The ELCA has no official policy on blessings of same-gender
relationships now, though the ELCA Conference of Bishops has advised the
church that it does not approve of such ceremonies.  The church's
standards preclude anyone from ordained or lay ministry who engages in
sexual relationships outside of marriage.
     The ELCA Division for Ministry and Division for Church in Society
first brought the task force together in May 2002 to assist the
divisions in developing study materials, recommendations and proposals
regarding the assembly mandates.
     The first of the study materials was distributed that summer.  It
was based on "A Message on Sexuality: Some Common Convictions," which
the ELCA Church Council adopted in 1996, outlining matters of sexuality
broadly accepted by Lutherans.
     The task force is now engaged in developing the second part of its
study materials, which are to be available by the end of this summer.
     "We are very much still in a process of listening and studying and
learning," said the Rev. Margaret G. Payne, bishop of the ELCA New
England Synod.	She chairs the task force.
     "This spring is a particularly intense time as we meet with
various groups," said Payne.  In addition to the panels assembled for
its February meeting, the task force will meet again in April to hear
from a panel of theologians and a panel of members of the scientific
community, she said.
     "We're wrestling very much with how to encourage the whole church
to engage more fully" in the study, said Payne.  Discussions about
blessing same-gender relationships and accepting ministers in such
relationships "needs to be a much broader conversation in the church,"
she said.

     The task force met with a panel of five ELCA pastors which
presented a "stand fast" position -- maintaining current ELCA positions
and policies regarding blessings and ordination:
 + the Rev. Bassam J. Abdallah, First United Lutheran Church, Hammond,
 + the Rev. David J. Johnsen, Christ Lutheran Church, Chino, Calif.
 + the Rev. Barbara J. Melaas-Swanson, Messiah Lutheran Church, Port
Byron, Ill.
 + the Rev. Amy C. Schifrin, Bethlehem Lutheran Church, St. Cloud, Minn.
 + the Rev. Michael E. Tassler, Bethel Lutheran Church, Manassas, Va.
     The task force asked the panel first to consider biblical
references to homosexuality and how they compare to other penalties or
prohibitions that are no longer observed by Christians, such as kosher
     "The Bible is unequivocally opposed to homosexual relationships,"
said Tassler.  Although there are only a few references to homosexuality
in the Bible, he said, each condemns it.
     "The Scripture is very clear," said Abdallah.  "We cannot
negotiate what the Word of God means, tailoring it to our needs," he
     Johnson pointed to the biblical accounts of God creating a man and
a woman as the "primary model of sexuality."  He asked, "What did God
originally intend?"
     Asked if homosexuals should be put to death, as described in the
biblical book of Leviticus, panel members said society or the church is
not to administer that punishment.  One view is that God will punish
homosexual acts at the end of time, said Tassler.
     A task force member, Dr. Julio A. Fonseca, a psychologist from
Dorado, Puerto Rico, said the church accepts ministers who have divorced
and remarried, yet in the Gospels Jesus considers divorce and remarriage
as adultery.
     In biblical times, marriage was more a man owning a woman as
property, said Schifrin.  We understand marriage as a matter of mutual
consent, she said, adding later that the context of homosexuality has
not changed.
     "Human sexuality is broken all over the place," said the Rev. E.
Peter Strommen, bishop of the ELCA's Northeastern Minnesota Synod and a
member of the task force from Duluth, Minn.  He questioned whether
blessing same-gender relationships could bring healing in much the same
way marriage does.
     The task force discussed with the panel "the nature of blessings"
-- what it would mean for the church to bless same-gender relationships.
Some on the panel said the church would be "condoning" or "endorsing"
     Several panel members said it was good for the Lutheran church to
discuss matters dealing with sexuality and to concentrate on what the
Bible has to say about sexual relationships.
     "The talking is great," said Johnson.  "We're working on this
together."  He added that he feared the need to make decisions on
matters of sexuality in an assembly.
     "In the long run, someone will be hurt," said Abdallah.
     "We are baptized into one body.  We deal with things as a
community," said Melaas-Swanson.  "I pray we will reach a life-giving

     A panel of 10 speakers represented five organizations within the
ELCA that promote the full participation of gay, lesbian, bisexual and
transgender Lutherans in the church:
 + Greg A. Egertson, co-chair, Lutheran Lesbian and Gay Ministries, San
 + the Rev. Katherine W. Hellier, Gethsemane Lutheran Church, Portland,
 + Anita C. Hill (ECP), St. Paul-Reformation Lutheran Church, St Paul,
 + Jeannine Janson, co-chair, Lutherans Concerned/North America, San
 + Dr. Margaret Moreland, president, Extraordinary Candidacy Project,
Berkeley, Calif.
 + Dirk Selland, co-chair, Lutherans Concerned/North America, Baltimore
 + Donna Simon (ECP), Abiding Peace Lutheran Church, Kansas City, Mo.
 + Sharon Stalkfleet (ECP), chaplain, East Bay Nursing Home Ministry,
Oakland, Calif.
 + the Rev. Paul A. Tidemann, St. Paul-Reformation Lutheran Church, St
Paul, Minn.
 + George Watson, attorney, Port Huron, Mich.
     Moreland and Stalkfleet represented the Extraordinary Candidacy
Project (ECP); Egertson and Simon represented Lutheran Lesbian and Gay
Ministries; Janson and Selland represented Lutherans Concerned/North
America; Hellier and Watson represented The Network for an Inclusive
Vision; and Hill and Tidemann represented Wingspan Ministry.
     ECP maintains a roster of ministers not endorsed by the ELCA
because of the church's expectation that marriage is the only setting
for sexual relationships.  Hill, Simon and Stalkfleet are on that
     "We have gay and lesbian pastors across this country living in
committed relationships.  Their parishioners know it," said Selland.  He
called the ELCA's rule precluding homosexuals from the ministry "a relic
of the past."
     Selland said blessings and ordinations of people in committed
same-gender relationships have had a positive effect on the communities
where they are conducted.  He said they are also signs that gay and
lesbian Lutherans have a deep commitment to their church in spite of its
     Moreland said the task force identified ECP as an advocate for
changing ELCA ordination policies.  "We are not an advocate for change.
We have already made the change," she said, noting that some "ECP
pastors" are serving ELCA congregations.  "Their calls are too strong to
be denied," she said.
     The Lutheran emphasis that sinners are "justified by faith through
grace," rather than by anything they do to merit God's favor, is what
compels St. Paul-Reformation Lutheran Church to welcome gay, lesbian,
bisexual and transgender Christians, said Tidemann.  Blessing their
relationships has also been a blessing for the congregation, he said.
     God does the blessing, Tidemann said, and the church does God's
work.  Marriage adds a legal element that involves a state license, he
     Simon noted that she serves an ELCA congregation while not an ELCA
pastor.  The church considers the pastoral office to be vacant in the
congregation, she said.  She encouraged the task force to read the
testimony of her parishioners when considering the ministry of a
     Janson brought a videotape of her "wedding" and invited the task
force to see what the blessing of two women's relationship looks like.
     There are many ELCA pastors who are keeping their sexuality a
secret from the church so they can answer God's call, said Janson.
"Deception, dishonesty and lying do terrible things to the soul," she
     "Your work and our work together is about reconciliation," said
Hill.  "We are already reconciled in Christ.  We must learn how to live
into it."
     Hill asked that the ELCA base its expectations for ministers on
love and committed life-long relationships rather than on sexual
     Task force members raised several of the biblical concerns the
"stand fast" panel had mentioned.
     Tidemann said the biblical account of God creating a man and a
woman was not a model of sexuality but a model of relationships and
"faithful companionship."  He added that homosexuality was not
understood until the 20th century.
     Look at the biblical texts "through the lens of the gospel," said
Stalkfleet.  When Christians interpret the Bible's dietary laws, for
example, they ask, "Where is Jesus Christ?" she said.
     When people in the Bible talk about homosexuality, "they do not
speak about me and my experience," said Egertson.  He pointed out that
when the apostles debated about preaching the gospel to the Gentiles,
St. Peter said, "God has shown me that I should not call any man impure
or unclean."
      Egertson said, it was difficult for him to tell his family he is
gay, "but there was never a question about my being a member of the
family."  Baptism is a sign of acceptance into God's family, he said,
but in parts of the church "our baptisms are suspect."
     When asked about the timing of the assembly vote and the
possibility of Lutherans leaving the ELCA, Selland said, the issues have
been studied for a long time.  "Change takes time, but it can happen
faster than you think," he said, adding that people are not considering
the Lutheran church now because of its positions and policies on

     The Rev. James M. Childs Jr., director for the ELCA studies on
sexuality, asked each panel for advice on the design and content of the
study materials, which are to be available by the end of this summer.
These materials are to facilitate study in ELCA congregations on the
possibility of blessing same-gender relationships and accepting
ministers in such relationships.
     A subcommittee of the task force produced a draft outline of the
study materials for the 14-member task force to consider at the meeting.
     "We had an opportunity to critique that in small groups and then
in plenary sessions, to add things that we thought needed to be added,
to clarify things, to suggest alternate wording, to play around with the
categories, and to make sure we capture all the things we've been told
people want to know about and to talk about," Payne said.
     Task force members recommended that the study guide be formatted
for individual and group use, for a scholarly audience and for a broader
audience.  This could be accomplished by issuing more than one study
guide -- perhaps one in a traditional format and one in comic-book-like
format, they said.
     It was helpful to hear from the panels before discussing the
specifics of the study materials, said Payne.  "Those were very intense
times of listening and learning and processing information about those
different standpoints," she said.
     "I believe what was helpful for us was to have those positions
embodied in people and have them speak individually about their
thoughts, their pastoral experiences and their views of Scripture," said
Payne.	It was also helpful to be able to ask questions and converse
with the panel members, she said.
     "Each task force meeting we have gives us a chance to move deeper
into the studies," said Payne.	"Each group we meet with and talk with
helps us to understand more of the complexities of the issues," she
     Task force members represent a wide range of opinion on how the
studies should turn out, said Payne, "but we're united by a
determination to work together and honor one another's integrity."  She
said that attitude could be a model for the whole church's studies on
-- -- --
     Information about the ELCA Studies on Sexuality can be found at on the Web.

For information contact:
John Brooks, Director (773) 380-2958 or NEWS@ELCA.ORG

Browse month . . . Browse month (sort by Source) . . . Advanced Search & Browse . . . WFN Home