A national assembly of Evangelical Lutherans urged its bishops Saturday to refrain from defrocking gay and lesbian ministers who violate a celibacy rule, but rejected measures that would have permitted ordaining gays churchwide.
Still, advocates for full inclusion of gays were encouraged, calling the resolution a powerful statement in support of clergy with same-gender partners. The conservative group Lutheran CORE, however, said bishops will now feel more secure in ignoring denomination policy.
The 538-431 vote came on the final day of a weeklong meeting in Chicago – and after emotional debate over how the denomination should interpret what the Bible says about homosexuality.
Like other mainline Protestant groups, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has been struggling for decades to reconcile differences on the issue. An ELCA task force is near the end of an eight-year study on human sexuality, which is expected to culminate in the 2009 release of a social statement that will heavily influence church policy.
The assembly voted to refer proposals on ordaining gays and blessing same-sex couples to the task force so the panel can make policy recommendations part of its report.
The current clergy standards require ministers to “abstain from homosexual sexual relationships.” However, even before Saturday’s vote, liberal-leaning bishops had refused to enforce the rule.
In the adopted resolution, the assembly “urges and encourages” bishops to either refrain from or “demonstrate restraint in disciplining” ministers who are in a “mutual, chaste and faithful committed same-gender relationship.”
“This is huge,” said Phil Soucy of Lutherans Concerned/North America, which lobbies on behalf of gays and lesbians.