ORLANDO, Fla. - Like other mainline Protestant denominations, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America would like to be focusing on anything but homosexuality as it convenes its biennial national assembly today in Orlando.
However, the 1,018 delegates and an equal number of observers gathering through Sunday at the World Center Marriott Resort and Convention Center will grapple with two divisive issues: whether to discipline congregations that bless same-sex unions and whether to permit sexually active gay clergy in the pulpit in defiance of denomination policy.
"My concern as a pastor is that this does not become the defining issue among us," said the Rev. Gene Kern of St. John Evangelical Lutheran Church in Winter Park, Fla. "There is a whole lot of additional work that we as Christians feel called to do, and that work still waits to be done."
Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson, head of the 4.9 million-member denomination, has the same concern.
"I do not believe, for us as Lutherans, human sexuality is a church-defining or church-dividing issue," he said.
Activists on both sides say it is unlikely the votes in Orlando will split the nation's fifth-largest Protestant denomination. The key votes at the assembly are on two resolutions from the ELCA's governing church council.
One continues the denomination's prohibition against blessing same-sex unions but makes no provision for disciplining congregations or clergy that do so.
The second excludes sexually active gay clergy from the pulpit but would provide leeway for ministers who are part of "life-long, committed and faithful same-sex couples."
Goodsoil, an alliance of organizations working for full participation by gays in the ELCA, is likely to offer alternative resolutions providing unambiguous support for blessing same-sex unions and for allowing noncelibate gay clergy to be pastors.
"What we're striving for is a single set of rules," said Phil Soucy, a Goodsoil spokesman. "It's one body of Christ, and there ought to be a single set of rules."
Two conservative groups, Solid Rock Lutherans and the Word Alone Network, agree that there should be a single standard, but they want that standard to prohibit sexually active gay clergy and the blessing of same-sex unions, with no exceptions.
"Because there is no scriptural justification, and because there exists no spirit in the church in these areas for change, I do not expect the churchwide assembly to alter the current policies" banning same-sex unions and noncelibate gay clergy, said the Rev. Roy Harrisville III, head of Solid Rock Lutherans.
Historically, the Lutheran denomination has its roots in the Scandinavian immigration to the upper Midwest. There are 10,657 congregations in the ELCA, which is made up of three smaller Lutheran denominations that merged in 1987. Since then, the denomination has steadily lost membership, dropping from 5.3 million members to 4.9 million in 2004.
ELCA churches in the Midwest, especially in rural areas, have been emptying, leading churches to close or consolidate with other congregations. Hanson said the denomination has several strategies to deal with this challenge, including evangelizing other ethnic groups, especially Hispanics.
"We as Lutherans have done a better job of preserving and transmitting the culture of our European immigrant ancestors than welcoming the new immigrant in our midst," he said.
Hanson said he hopes that as members of his denomination retire to Sunbelt states such as Florida and Arizona, they will help accelerate this effort.
The Orlando Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.