This August, at its 2005 Churchwide Assembly in Orlando, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) sidestepped the decisions it needs to make on sexuality--and several pastors of large Lutheran congregations, together with at least one bishop, voiced their relief that they were not going to have to leave the denomination. At least, not yet. Sharing their relief, I decided not to resign several roles that I play in the ELCA and not to press my parish council for a decision on the blessing of homosexual unions. As my bishop put it, "The status quo has been affirmed."
At the same time, revisionist pastors, bishops, and laypersons voiced approval of the "progress" made at Orlando. They lamented the unwillingness of the assembly to endorse two of the three proposals submitted by the Church's leadership. But the revisionists, too, are willing to stay in the ELCA, because they think time and momentum is on their side. The future, they think, is theirs.
The assessments of both sides contain some truth. The orthodox Lutherans succeeded in defeating two key proposals of the leadership regarding sexuality issues. Yet, as the revisionists believe, the forces pushing the ELCA toward accommodating liberal Protestant attitudes on those issues are still powerfully at work.
The summer assembly in Orlando faced three proposals, the latter two of which would have created large shifts in the ELCA's relation to the larger Christian world. The first proposal asked Church members to "find ways to live together faithfully in the midst of our disagreements" about same-sex unions. The second declared respect for the guidance of the 1993 statement of the Conference of Bishops that there is no basis in scripture or tradition to bless gay and lesbian unions, but at the same time required Lutherans to trust their pastors and congregations to offer appropriate pastoral care to same-sex couples. And the third proposal allowed gays and lesbians in partnered relationships to be ordained in exceptional cases and circumstances for "the sake of mission."
These three proposals represented the Church Council's revision of the three proposals of the Sexuality Task Force, which had spent three years and over a million dollars to come up with a political compromise rather than a normative theological judgment on homosexual conduct. As it happens, the task force had found that at least 56 percent--probably more like 66 percent--of the respondents to its studies opposed changes in Church teachings or practices. But the ELCA leadership pressed forward. The Church Council voted 30-2 to forward its proposals to the assembly.
At the assembly, nearly all the bishops of metropolitan and West Coast synods spoke forcefully for the council...