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Lutheran Lesbian & Gay Ministries

March 9, 2001

ELCA Bishops Respond to Human Sexuality Decisions, Hold Retreat

SAN ANTONIO (ELCA) -- In a response to actions of the Church Council of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), the ELCA Conference of the Bishops agreed with council decisions related to human sexuality. Specifically, the bishops affirmed a decision not to initiate a study on the ordination of non-celibate gay and lesbian people and supported an action to decline to develop a study process regarding exceptions to the church's standards for ordained ministry.

In its response to the council's actions, the bishops also expressed hope for continuing "thoughtful, deliberate and prayerful conversation" throughout the church on human sexuality issues.

"As we support, encourage and participate in the process of discussion on discernment about issues of human sexuality, we trust in the presence and power of God's Holy Spirit to guide us," the resolution said.

The Conference of Bishops is an advisory body of the ELCA's 65 synod bishops, presiding bishop and secretary. The conference met here March 1-6. The Church Council is the board of directors of the church, and functions as its interim legislative authority between churchwide assemblies.

The resolution, drafted and presented by the bishops' Theological and Ethical Concerns Committee, responded to actions the Church Council took in 2000. In April the council declined to initiate a study on the ordination of non-celibate gay and lesbian people, a request referred to the Church Council from the 1999 Churchwide Assembly.

In November, the council rejected a proposal that would allow for possible exceptions to its statement of standards for ordained ministers. The idea originated from St. Paul-Reformation Lutheran Church, St. Paul, Minn., and was directed to the ELCA Church Council through the ELCA Saint Paul Area Synod Council.

Some bishops sought to remove or soften language in their resolution, which expressed affirmation for or support for council's specific actions. Those proposals were defeated by close votes.

Bishops meet in retreat

Though not specifically related to the resolution, the bishops devoted one day of their meeting here to an educational retreat on human sexuality. The retreat, conducted in closed session, followed a similar format the Church Council used this past summer.

The program included plenary presentations by Bob Gibeling, Lutherans Concerned/ North America, Atlanta; and Dottie Ludwig, Eagles' Wings Ministries, Minneapolis; and Bible studies led by the Rev. Terence E. Fretheim, Luther Seminary, St. Paul; and the Rev. Walter F. Taylor Jr., Trinity Lutheran Seminary, Columbus, Ohio. Luther and Trinity are two of eight ELCA seminaries. The retreat involved the bishops in several small group discussions.

The retreat was not intended to reach any conclusions on human sexuality issues, such as ordination of non-celibate gay and lesbian people and blessing of same-sex relationships, said the Rev. Donald J. McCoid, bishop of the ELCA Southwestern Pennsylvania Synod, Pittsburgh. McCoid chairs the Conference of Bishops.

While the ELCA welcomes and invites participation in congregations by gay and lesbian people, ELCA policy requires gay and lesbian people who are ordained to abstain from homosexual sexual relationships. The Conference of Bishops has advised ELCA pastors that they do not approve of blessing same-sex relationships, though their opinion is only advisory. In 2000, two ELCA synods -- the Greater Milwaukee Synod and Southeast Michigan Synod -- recognized and affirmed the blessing of committed same-gender relationships by their pastors.

"The retreat was to give us an opportunity to have some time away from the formal agenda to be fed, to discuss and to share," McCoid said.

While there are differences among the bishops on human sexuality issues, the discussions were honest, civil and respectful, McCoid said, adding that it's important the bishops discuss such issues. The bishops' model may help the church in moral deliberation on the issues, he said.

"We covet time as bishops to stand back from the pressure of decision-making, from needing to make responses to policy proposals before the church, and to seek the wisdom of one another in the context of scripture and the theologians of our church," said the Rev. Mark S. Hanson, bishop of the ELCA Saint Paul Area Synod. The retreat also gave the bishops a chance to learn from their shared experience on human sexuality issues, said Hanson, vice chair of the Conference of Bishops. Gay and lesbian issues in the church call for responses that acknowledge differences but don't divide or define the church, he said.

Hanson also emphasized the advisory role of the ELCA bishops. "We take our teaching role very seriously," he said. "I have a deep concern that people not perceive us as changing policy or setting an agenda, when we very clearly do not see ourselves in that role."

For information contact: John Brooks, Director (773) 380-2958 or TO:NEWS@ELCA.ORG