The nation's largest Lutheran church body will try to settle the divisive issue of homosexuality by maintaining bans on gay clergy and same-sex unions -- while also allowing churches to break both those rules without threat of discipline.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, with 5 million members, will consider a three-pronged proposal on homosexuality when it meets Aug. 8 through 14 in Orlando.
But, because traditionalists say the proposals go too far, and progressives say they don't go far enough, the church could reject the proposal and leave Orlando without any major change to its gay policies after spending four years wrestling with the issue.
As a large, Middle American church, the Lutherans are a revealing barometer of U.S. church life. And, if approved, the rules-without-discipline approach would be a novel way for U.S. churches to sidestep the explosive yes-or-no answers on gay issues.
The church's top leader, Presiding Bishop Mark S. Hanson, said he hopes the "diverse middle of the church" can help the left and right poles arrive at some consensus.
"Lutherans can live with some ambiguity around these questions, and we will not take the tensions they create as evidence of a divided church," he said in a conference call with reporters, "but as a sign of a church that is struggling with what it means . . . to be engaged in God's mission in a very complex and ever-changing world."
The three recommendations are based on a January report from a panel that was appointed in 2001 to help the church settle the issue. If passed, they would urge the church to "concentrate on finding ways to live together in the midst of disagreements"; maintain a 1993 statement that frowns on the blessing of same-sex unions but leaves the final decision to local pastors and churches on how best to provide "pastoral care" to homosexual couples; and allow churches to hire gay clergy who are in "life-long, committed and faithful same-sex relationships," but only under limited circumstances. Current policy requires gay pastors to remain celibate.
Even though gay clergy would be allowed to serve, they would have to seek a three-tier approval from their local bishop, from local elected church leaders and, ultimately, from the church body's Conference of Bishops.
Both sides agree that the third recommendation -- which requires a two-thirds vote by the 1,018 voting delegates -- is the most contentious. Conservatives say it would sanction behavior that the Bible calls sinful, promote a look-the-other-way approach to defiance, and strain relations with other churches. Liberal groups, meanwhile, say the proposal would set up a "separate-but-unequal" standard for gay clergy.