Correction to This Article
This article misidentified the pastor of Georgetown Lutheran Church. He is the Rev. Phillip Gaines, not Phillip Graves.

Evangelical Lutherans to Vote on Sexually Active Gay Clergy

By Jacqueline L. Salmon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, one of the largest Christian denominations in the country, will decide this week whether to allow gay people in relationships to serve as clergy.

Currently, sexually active gay people are not permitted to serve in the clergy, but celibate gay people are. By Friday, church delegates meeting in Minneapolis are expected to vote on a proposal that would permit congregations to let gay men and lesbians in committed, monogamous relationships serve as clergy.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church is the latest major denomination to wrestle with the question of gay clergy. The issue has divided the Episcopal Church, which last month voted to make gay people eligible for any ordained ministry, further threatening to split the worldwide Anglican Communion, of which it is a branch. And earlier this year, the Presbyterian Church (USA) voted against accepting openly gay pastors, although the margin narrowed compared with a 2001 vote.

The issue has also roiled the United Methodists, which, after an emotional debate last year, voted to retain its policy of prohibiting "self-avowed, practicing homosexuals" from being ordained as clergy.

"It is quite astonishing that all of these major denominations seem to be considering it at the same time, but I think it's part of the whole cultural milieu," said Jay Johnson, director of academic research at the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry at the Pacific School of Religion.

For the ECLA, which has 4.8 million members and 10,500 churches -- including 90 churches in the Washington area -- the vote is a culmination of years of debate over whether Scripture permits homosexuality.

"For us, this isn't about sex," said Ryan Schwarz, a Washington lay leader in a conservative group within the ECLA that opposes the proposal to allow gay clergy in same-sex relationships. "It is a matter of the authority of the Word. The entire expanse of the Bible witnesses to God's plan . . . which is the lifelong marriage of a man and a woman."

But those supporting the proposal maintain they aren't going against Scripture.

"There's no question about the authority of Scripture" in the Lutheran Church, said Phil Soucy, a spokesman for Lutherans Concerned, a pro-gay-rights group within the ECLA. "But we certainly can debate the interpretation of Scripture. . . . The very idea that questioning someone else's interpretation of Scripture constitutes an assault on the authority of Scripture is nonsense."

Those involved say the vote, expected to occur Friday, could be close.

For some, the vote has profound personal implications. The Rev. Phillip Graves, pastor of Georgetown Lutheran Church, has been in a same-sex partnership for 26 years, but the relationship has been celibate since 1992 when Graves was accepted into the seminary.

"We as an ELCA body have been discussing this policy for so many years that it has become just tiresome," Graves said. "I can't predict how over 1,000 people will vote in Minneapolis, but I hope, based on the conversations that I've had with people, that it will pass."

In a news conference in Minneapolis on Monday, ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark S. Hanson predicted "deep, profound disappointment" for the losing side.

But if the proposal passes, opponents say they don't expect it to result in large conservative factions breaking away from the ECLA, as happened in the Episcopal church. There, hundreds of churches left to align themselves with more conservative branches of the Anglican Communion.

"We are not laying plans to split the ELCA or lead an exodus out of the ELCA," Schwarz said. "Our mission is to reform the ELCA -- to renew the ELCA for the mission of Christ."

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