ELCA members vote to affirm same-sex relationships
A mighty wind blew as members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) gathered from around the nation to the Minneapolis Convention Center to determine their church policy August 17-23. The August 19 tornado coincided with the beginning of a series of votes addressing social issues, among them human sexuality and comprehensive immigration reform.
The south side of Minneapolis is known for its density of Lutheran churches and its historic settlement by the immigrant communities that started those churches. The ELCA is known for its "big tent" having formed in 1988 from a group of separate Lutheran churches that tended to reflect their historic immigrant populations, such as German, Swedish, Finnish and Norwegian. The EI.CA is now the largest Lutheran-identified church in the U.S.
White the tornado raged that Wednesday, church leaders continued grappling with what it means to be Christian and how their church should manifest in today's world. Outside, the winds lifted up tents sheltering a sidewalk cafe at Central Lutheran Church and dumped them on the roof of the convention center. Miraculously, neither the stained glass of the church nor the large plate windows of the convention center were broken. Central Lutheran Church, the largest Lutheran worship space in the Americas, had set up the tents to shelter its sidewalk caf£, now no longer able to serve assembly participants throughout the week.
Inside, the Lutherans voted on the controversial Human Sexuality Social Statement, which—among many points— concluded that homosexuality in the human family was natural and acceptable to God. During the debate, some speakers had warned of church division should this position be taken. Outside, the sun broke out as the assembly voted exactly the two-thirds needed for passage of this expanded "tent." Ironically, a worship service planned long in advance and held that evening in Central Lutheran by promoters of the full inclusion of gays and lesbians featured the Gospel passage of Jesus quieting the storm. The assembly diligently continued its work throughout the week addressing a number of concerns.
One thousand forty-five representatives of the 10,000 ELCA congregations gathered as they do every two years as their way of discerning God's will for their collective decisions, called "communal discernment." The institution moves forward slowly and reflectively as it changes—not surprising for an organization that centers around remembering events that occurred over 2,000 years ago. In developing "social statements," the ELCA seeks input from the best current societal knowledge combined with theological wisdom. The recommended social statement: "Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust" was the culmination of eight years of official and participatory study led by the ELCA's task force for Studies on Sexuality.
The assembly went on to commit its church to find a way to affirm publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships, and also to accept as leaders those who are part of such relationships. While each vote was historic and dramatic, the assembly members respected the mixed feelings of those in their midst and restrained their responses. (The humorist Garrison Keillor would probably note the conformance with the stereotype of Lutherans as being unemotional!)
Rev. Keith Olstad explained, "We had agreed, in the first policy change recommendation , to bear one another's burdens, love the neighbor, and respect the bound consciences of all.' While this conviction is biblically solid and politically right, it also muted the need of many of us to celebrate something miraculously wonderful ... To them [the activists who had struggled for inclusion] we all owe a deep debt of gratitude and no small measure of honor and praise. Through their years of persistent and savvy work, often in spite of immeasurable frustration and despair, God has accomplished something wonderful!" Olstad has pastored many south-side churches, but now co-leads St. Paul-Reformat ion Lutheran Church in St. Paul.
Southside resident and yoga teacher Jeanne Barkey noted, "While I'm not a Lutheran, it means something to me that the Lutherans have affirmed how I live. It makes the world a better and safer place. " Barkey has been in a same-gender relationship for 16 years.
The church names itself "Evangelical" because it seeks to be an expression of the Holy Spirit, which is often symbolized as "breath" or "wind," in outreach from Jesus. The tagline of the ELCA is "God's Work, Our Hands." Also at the assembly were representatives of the host of Lutheran agencies and partners that have historically been an expression of Christian "good works," among them Lutheran schools, hospitals and other social service centers, and advocacy organizations—which also impact the south side.
The assembly took its lead from the work of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS) in resolving to support comprehensive and just immigration reform and to call for an end to state-sponsored violence against immigrant families, in the form of immigration raids, until those new policies are in place. The resolution wording calls for "Balancing respect for law with a recognition of due process and respect for humanitarian principles."
The vast majority of ELCA members arc descendants of a once-immigrant people. Volunteers staffing the events wore adorned red vests created by Mu)eres de la Palabra: Women of the Word, a group of women from various South American countries who learn English and other new skills together at St. Paul Lutheran Church, 2742 15th Avc. S.
The assembly referred to its ELCA social statement "Caring for Health: Our Shared Endeavor," affirmed in 1991, to resolve (to support health-care reform, and to advocate for equitable access to basic health care for all people.
Another health-related action is concerned with suffering around the globe. By affirming the Lutheran Malaria Initiative, the ELCA joins with the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (the second largest Lutheran body in the U.S.), the Lutheran World Federation (a 60-year-old communion of MO worldwide church bodies with a diversity of ccclcsial traditions, cultural and language distinctions), renowned for its humanitarian efforts; and the United Nations Foundation. The bold intent is to eradicate malaria.
The assembly also committed Lutheran resources to the international effort to fight the spread of HIV and AIDS. It affirmed the work of the Lutheran Disaster Response, and determined to enter into a full communion agreement with the United Methodist Church. The assembly also resolved to work toward a two state agreement between Israel and Palestine in partnership with Christian, Jewish and Muslim communities locally and internationally. Work in developing global relationships is understood to diminish the power of religious extremists.
The assembly also affirmed the Book of Faith Initiative, which seeks to increase knowledge of the Bible. The presiding national Bishop Mark Hanson, who also has Minneapolis roots, explained the Lutheran approach as continuing "to read and interpret the Scriptures evangelically—that is what shows forth Christ." The Bible is understood as a living source of guidance, not a recipe book to be taken literally.
One convention hall was transformed into a worship center. Each day the assembly gathered there for worship. At other times, eight p-rayer stations with artwork, pillows and candles invited solo or small group prayer. One participant noted, "I am grateful for all the opportunities to prayduring the assembly. When we pray we are unified in our trust in a loving caring God. We are one church in our confidence that the Holy spirit lives and works through us, even when it's hard to see." Every 20 minutes, the assembly took time for prayer, and they
prayed before each vote.
The week of work, which was webcast, was punctuated by primo free Lutheran music events. The National Lutheran Choir (which rehearses at southsidc churches and includes many southside members) gave a hymn festival at Central Lutheran. Southside church music ministers, among them Mary Preus, Tony Machado and Tom Witt, members of the group Bread for the Journey, rocked thL1 assembly wilh multicultural music. The congregations gathered showed their Lutheran-cultivated ability to sing along in harmony, filling ihe sanctuary with glorious unrehearsed choral sound.
The assembly sought to attend with reflection to details as a way of living out its commitments. Accordingly, in order to "exercise leadership in the care of God's creation" the biennial event was the "greenest" assembly so far, using less paper arid promoting other environmentally friendly actions. The cups used for communion, called vessels, were handmade of natural and recycled material by local artisans of fair-trade companies.
The biennial assembly began under the storm clouds of threat of church division over how it understood human sexuality. Bishop Hanson chose to see this drama as an opportunity for "faith-filled witness to the larger human family that struggles with division and yearns for healing and wholeness that is real and true. We live in a polarized culture that equates unity with uniformity and sees differences as a reason for divisions." Those gathered under the big tent faithfully stuck to their tasks of dealing with many issues that call for Christian responses. Even the tornado did not shake them. They continued to pray and vote until the sun shone.
Amy Blumenshine is an MSW who is a diacona! minister with the ELCA. For a few years following Southside Pride's founding, in 1990, she contributed a garden column to the paper.