Lutheran vote fails to heal rift over gay issues

Vote doesn't stop Lutheran debate on gays

Unsure: The church's recent decisions against gay clergy and same-sex unions maintain an uneasy status quo.

August 28, 2005|By Matthew Hay Brown | Matthew Hay Brown,SUN STAFF

Richard Dirk Selland, a gay member of Christ Lutheran Church in Federal Hill, traveled to the national assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America this month, hoping that members would approve the blessing of same-sex couples and the ordination of practicing homosexuals as ministers.

George Paul Mocko, a former bishop of the Delaware-Maryland Synod of the ELCA, went to the assembly in Orlando, Fla., hoping members would ban those practices.

Both came away disappointed.

For area Lutherans, as for the 5 million-member church nationwide, the decision to neither tighten nor loosen restrictions on homosexuals leaves unresolved questions that have divided other denominations.

With the next assembly set for 2007, and a statement on human sexuality due in 2009, both sides are readying for a long struggle over the direction of the nation's largest Lutheran church.

But where Mocko, a member of the conservative Solid Rock Lutherans, worries that the denomination is drifting away from its grounding in the Bible, Selland, a national co-chairman of the liberal Lutherans Concerned/North America, is hopeful that the church is moving toward a new understanding of Scripture.

"The good thing about this is the last two years, finally we got people in the congregations talking," Selland said.

Mocko, however, says he's pessimistic. "We Lutherans have been known as biblical theologians -- this we've always considered as our contribution in particular on the ecumenical scene," he said. "If for us, with this issue, and then with other issues, we say we don't need to do that, what does that spell for the future of this church?"

Thomas Ogletree, a professor of theological ethics at Yale Divinity School, says traditionalists have reason to be concerned.

"If you go by past experience, the fact that the issue can even come up, it's an indication that change is taking place," said Ogletree, a United Methodist minister. "There were also debates about whether slavery was tolerable. Should women be ordained? These are issues that the church struggled with, but its teaching changed over time."

Selland, 36, grew up at Bethany Lutheran Church in Salisbury, where he says he developed a sense of faith and morality that guided him through life -- including legal battles as a Navy officer challenging the "don't ask-don't tell" policy.

Now an attorney with the Social Security Administration in Baltimore, he joined Christ Lutheran Church five years ago. He has become an assistant minister, reading the liturgy and distributing the host during communion.

He hopes one day that his relationship with his partner may be blessed there.

"I feel that my sexuality is a gift by God and does not alter how I choose to live out my Christian life," he said.

Mocko opposes the blessing of same-sex couples. He points to a pair of New Testament passages in which Jesus defines marriage as between a man and a woman.

"If he is lord of the church," he said, "then his words, such well-attested words as those ... are simply not to be dismissed, and brushed aside in favor of the view that God has made a variety of sexualities, all of them to be equally celebrated and blessed."

The debate over whether homosexuality is a sin and what roles, if any, practicing homosexuals may assume in the church goes directly to the larger question of how a believer approaches the Bible: Are the biblical prohibitions to be taken literally, or are they trumped by a broader, but less specific, message of inclusion?

"That's why it's significant," says H. Gerard Knoche, the current bishop of the 92,000-member Delaware-Maryland Synod. He favors maintaining the restrictions.

"What we have not come to an agreement on in the Lutheran church is a Lutheran hermeneutics, a Lutheran way of understanding the Scripture," Knoche said. "So we have some biblical literalists in the church, and we have some for whom the context is so much more important than anything else.

"This issue has demonstrated that big-time."

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America officially welcomed gay and lesbian members in 1991, but it does not ordain practicing homosexuals or sanction blessing same-sex couples.

In the voting last week, a divided assembly of 1,000 Lutherans left those policies unchanged. On a question that required a two-thirds' majority to pass, members voted 503-490 against allowing bishops to ordain gay clergy candidates who were in committed relationships. Members voted 670-323 to maintain the prohibition on blessing same-sex couples, while trusting pastors and congregations to "discern ways to provide faithful pastoral care for all to whom they minister."

Debates over homosexuality have opened deep rifts in some Protestant denominations. The ordination of an openly gay bishop in New Hampshire two years ago has divided the Episcopal Church USA. The United Church of Christ, in contrast, last month endorsed civil unions for same-sex couples.

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