The same friend who sent me the Calvin and Hobbes cartoon below is my regular source for insiderish news on church matters. He reports that the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA)’s task force on human sexuality has finished its work and has released a social statement called “Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust.” The task force has been at work since 2002. You can find the statement and a list of policy recommendations on the ELCA’s web site here. These documents will make that body’s churchwide assembly in August a rather, let’s say, interesting event.
The long-and-short of the task force’s policy report is that, citing a lack of consensus on the matter, they recommend a local option on the ordination of clergy in committed same-sex relationships (see step four in the policy document). Each of the ELCA’s 65 member synods would get to choose whether or not they would ordain non-celibate homosexuals as priests. They write, “the majority of the task force concludes that, among all the options available, it will best serve the mission of the ELCA to recommend that, within the existing structures and practices of this church, some means for flexibility in decision-making be implemented so that congregations and synods may choose whether or not to approve or call people in publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships to serve on ELCA rosters.” At present, the church body requires that priests, whether heterosexual or homosexual, who aren’t in a heterosexual marriage to practice sexual abstinence. The task force rejected this position (lines 451-57), yet refused to specifically endorse non-celibate gay priests churchwide (459-69). Nevertheless, if a majority of voters at the convention in August approve the “structured flexibility” option, they would be voting to overturn the church’s traditional teaching on sexuality and end the blanket ban on homosexuals in relationships from serving as clergy.
Now here’s where things get really interesting. The social statement itself, which spells out the task force’s theological and moral rationale for its policy recommendations, requires a 2/3 majority in the church assembly for it to be adopted. There is probably enough in the social statement for both liberals and conservatives to dislike it and send it down to defeat. But the proposed policy resolutions, which change the way the church operates, only require a simple majority. So you could have the ELCA voting to permit non-celibate gay priests on the local level, but rejecting the rationalizations for doing so. That is, unless the church body moves to require a 2/3 vote for resolutions as well. Floor fights for everybody!
As far as liberal mainline churches go, the five million member ELCA is actually fairly conservative. It’s to the right of the Episcopal Church in the U.S., for example. If it adopts the local option, we may see a significant number of parishes leave the body and become independent, or join the smaller (2.5 million), more conservative LCMS. Of course their departure would move the ELCA even further to the left. (full disclosure: I attend an LCMS church)