It was August, and gays and their allies in the 4.9-million-member Evangelical Lutheran Church in America figured their time had come. They wanted the ELCA, the most liberal of the main Lutheran denominations, to change its policies and formally allow both the blessing of same-sex relationships and the ordination of gay clergy. Important ELCA policy changes must be decided by vote at the quadrennial Church-wide Assembly. This was the month for the next assembly, bringing together 1,018 voting delegates.
ELCA bishops in 1993 adopted a statement saying they find no basis in Scripture for blessing homosexual relationships and they would not approve such ceremonies. Moreover, the church's constitution, which defines marriage as a relationship between a man and a woman, banned ordination of noncelibate gay clergy. Enforcement, however, hasn't been consistent. Some bishops permit such ordinations and same-sex rites in their regional synods, causing unrest in many pews.
A softening-up process began in earnest six years ago. An ELCA study of sexuality led to three recommendations drawn up by a task force and released in January. They were refined further by the 37-member Church Council, the ELCA's interim governing body between assemblies. They came before this month's assembly for a vote.
The first one called for unity despite disagreement, and it passed overwhelmingly.
Seventeen ELCA theologians went on record earlier opposing the proposed changes in the other two recommendations. Carl Braaten, one of the ELCA's most respected and admired theologians, warned that departure from Scripture is heading the church toward "heresy" and "antinomianism."
Gay-friendly forces quickly hustled together more than 60 other ELCA scholars and teachers who signed a statement endorsing the changes as "a much-needed and faithful compromise for this moment in the life of the church."
Recommendation 2 urged that the church "continue" to respect the bishops' 1993 guidance statement on same-sex relationships, but urged "that this church welcome gay and lesbian persons into its life, and trust pastors and congregations to discern ways to provide faithful pastoral care to same-sex couples." It didn't say what that meant.
On the floor, two conservative-backed amendments aimed at excluding same-sex blessings from the definition of "pastoral care" were defeated 418-581 and 415-580 respectively. Bishop Carol Hendrix proposed changing the phrase "same-sex unions" to "all to whom they minister." A return to ambiguity. Pro-gay delegates opposed it, but her amendment passed narrowly, 491-484. The resolution as amended was approved 670-323. In effect, same-sex blessings will now be a matter of local option, depending on each bishop's ideology.
Recommendation 3 called for no change in ELCA policy toward homosexual clergy, but advocated "exceptions to the expectations regarding sexual conduct for gay or lesbian candidates and rostered [clergy] in life-long, committed and faithful same-sex relationships who otherwise are determined to be in compliance" with the conduct the church expects of its ministers. In other words, have it both ways. There was little hope it would pass, for it needed a two-thirds majority, and the majority of regional synods had opposed it earlier in the year.
As debate began, about 100 pro-gay "Goodsoil" activists, some wearing rainbow sashes, stood up in the visitors' section. A female delegate proposed an amendment to give gay clergy equal status by removing all restrictions. After her motion was shot down 374-617, the Goodsoil activists moved to the front of the hall and stood in front of the podium. Presiding Bishop Carl Hanson, who by all accounts handled the proceedings even-handedly, called repeatedly for them to return to their seats, but they refused. Several more pro-gay amendments failed.
Also defeated was an amendment by conservative Louis Hesse, a hog farmer from Washington state who was a member of the task force and its chief dissenter. His move, rejected 444-535, would have kept the constitution virtually untouched.
In the end, Recommendation 3 failed narrowly, 490-503, and well short of the two-thirds required majority.
But pro-gay forces have little to cry about. The assembly propped open the door for same-sex blessings, leaving unresolved the issue of how to enforce constitutional standards when bishops ignore them.