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Lutheran Lesbian & Gay Ministries

March 22, 2001

ELCA Ministry Board Accepts Ordination Guidelines for Exceptions

CHICAGO (ELCA) -- The board of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) Division for Ministry met here March 9-11 and approved guidelines that would help the church implement a bylaw being considered to permit ordinations "in unusual circumstances." The guidelines were approved by a 10-7 vote and recommended to the ELCA Church Council for adoption.

The Possible Bylaw

In November the ELCA Church Council -- the church's board of directors and the legislative authority of the church between its churchwide assemblies -- referred a possible bylaw for the ELCA Constitution to the Rev. H. George Anderson, ELCA presiding bishop. At its meeting here April 6-8, the council will decide if it will transmit the bylaw to the Churchwide Assembly, which will meet Aug. 8-14 in Indianapolis.

On Jan. 1, the ELCA and Episcopal Church entered into full communion. For Lutheran clergy to serve in Episcopal congregations - - a feature of the new relationship -- the ELCA accepted the "historic episcopate."

The historic episcopate traces the ordained ministry back to the early days of the Christian Church through a succession of bishops. To participate in that succession, ELCA bishops preside at the ordinations of new ELCA pastors. In addition to the presiding bishop, a bishop heads each of the ELCA's 65 synods.

Some Lutherans remain opposed to incorporating the historic episcopate in the ELCA, and the bylaw is seen as a compromise measure. It "would permit a synodical bishop to authorize an ordination in unusual circumstances by a pastor other than a pastor holding the office of synodical bishop."

The assembly could add the bylaw to a section of the ELCA Constitution that deals with standards for ordained ministers.

The Guidelines

The board of the ELCA Division for Ministry approved a set of guidelines related to the bylaw and recommended the Church Council adopt them in April. The guidelines state that their purpose is to describe how a synod bishop may "allow an exception to this church's established ordination practices" in unusual circumstances.

The guidelines define "unusual circumstances" broadly to let bishops "use their judgment in evaluating individual cases." The guidelines also lay out specific procedures to implement the bylaw.

Staff of the ELCA Division for Ministry drafted the guidelines earlier in the year and forwarded them to the division's "liaison committee" of the ELCA Conference of Bishops. The liaison committee suggested a "sunset clause" be added to the bylaw, saying the bylaw will expire in 2007. The clause was removed from the revised guidelines, at the recommendation of the Conference of Bishops.

The Conference of Bishops -- an advisory body consisting of the ELCA's synod bishops, presiding bishop and secretary -- met March 1-6 in San Antonio.

Key provisions in the revised guidelines call for:

  • a candidate for ordination who seeks an exception to discuss the request with the synod bishop;
  • the synod bishop to seek the advice of the synod council and consult with the presiding bishop;
  • the synod bishop to exercise "pastoral judgment" in making a decision;
  • no appeal of the synod bishop's decision; and
  • periodic evaluation of the guidelines by the Division for Ministry and review by the Conference of Bishops and Church Council.
The bishops suggested deleting "these guidelines shall be reviewed and evaluated at the direction of the Office of the Presiding Bishop prior to the 2007 Churchwide Assembly."

The Division for Ministry board voted down a motion to receive the guidelines' original wording -- eight in favor, nine against and one abstaining. The board then approved the guidelines the bishops suggested and recommended the council adopt them.

"It was one of those votes that, when you take it, everybody sits quietly afterward and lets it sink in, because it was not a win- lose vote," said the Rev. Joseph M. Wagner, executive director of the ELCA Division for Ministry. "It was a realistic struggling with a very complex issue, recognizing that we are only one step in the process."

Wagner said the vote came after more than two hours of discussion. "It was very long and extended, direct, healthy, strong conversation," he said. "Our board asked, because of the intensity and vigor of the conversation, that the original version also be transmitted to the Church Council as information for its conversation."

"The guidelines, as they were passed along by the Conference of Bishops and were recommended by our board, are a realistic middle ground," said Wagner. He said the ELCA is "committed to having very few exceptions" while recognizing "there are several synods in the church that need to have the flexibility the guidelines permit."

"We are in the process of living into full communion, recognizing the differences that are still in our church and the fact that we nevertheless have taken a clear position, have accepted it and are moving forward," said Wagner. "It's a negotiated pathway that is being worked out."

The bylaw and guidelines create "the possibility for exceptions while honoring the fact that we have this relationship with the Episcopal Church," said the Rev. A. Craig Settlage, associate executive director of the ELCA Division for Ministry. They provide a process of consultation to determine "good reason a synodical bishop may authorize another ELCA pastor to preside at the ordination service."

"The opportunity for a widely acceptable compromise is being missed," said Dr. Michael J. Root, professor of systematic theology, Trinity Lutheran Seminary, Columbus, Ohio. Root is a member of the DM board and was one of three Lutherans who drafted the full- communion agreement the ELCA adopted in 1999 and the Episcopal Church adopted in 2000.

"I have come to the conclusion that exceptions with clear restrictions and a definite end-date, to cover only those persons already in the candidacy process on January 1, 2001, could be seen as the flexible implementation of the new relationship and not its permanent alteration," he said.

"I was pleased with the original guidelines developed by the division and discouraged by the removal of all limiting features by the bishops," said Root.

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