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ELCA Task Force Wants Church to Talk about Sexuality

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    CALLED OUT ... February 13, 2003 ELCA Task Force Wants Church to Talk about Sexuality ELCA NEWS SERVICE CHICAGO (ELCA) -- The vast majority of this church has
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 14, 2003
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      February 13, 2003
      ELCA Task Force Wants Church to Talk about Sexuality

      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

      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

      "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,
      + 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

      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 Francisco
      + the Rev. Katherine W. Hellier, Gethsemane Lutheran Church,
      Portland, Ore.
      + 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,
      + 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 regulations.

      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 homosexuality.


      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

      "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 sexuality.

      -- -- --

      Information about the ELCA Studies on Sexuality can be found at
      http://www.elca.org/faithfuljourney on the Web.

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