While the Lutherans inside were debating a controversial new social statement on human sexuality, a tornado hit the outside of the Minneapolis Convention Center on Wednesday afternoon. A short time later, the assembly passed by an exact and needed two-thirds majority a controversial new social statement on human sexuality.
Nobody, including the Rev. Mark Hanson, presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, drew any connection between the circumstances. And the main thing: nobody was hurt when the tornado hit, Hanson told the 2,000 people gathered at the church's bienniel national assembly.
The tornado did damage across parts of south Minneapolis, including downing trees and lamp posts, but no injuries were reported.
Later, in the early evening, by a two-thirds majority, voting members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's national assembly approved the new social statement on human sexuality that provides background on an separate upcoming vote on approving gays and lesbians in committed relationships as clergy.
By a vote of 676 to 338, or a 66.67 percent majority, the assembly adopted "Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust," which is the product of a decade and more of discussion within the nation's largest Lutheran denomination.
Adoption of such a social statement, which has no ruling power over individual members but expresses the church's teaching, required a two-thirds majority.
Social statements are said to "assist Lutherans in their moral deliberations, govern the ELCA's institutional policies and guide the church's advocacy work," according to an ELCA news release.
Although the issue of changing ELCA policy to allow gays and lesbians in committed relationships to serve as pastors has been the dominant theme leading into this national assembly, the social statement covers a wide range of topics, including human trafficking, prostitution, adultery, marriage, co-habitation and family.
It's been praised both by opponents and supporters of changing ELCA ministerial policy to allow gays and lesbians in relationships to be ordained and called as pastors.
But others, including some of the dozens who spoke at floor microphones Wednesday at the assembly, say the statement is a departure from traditional Christian teaching on marriage and sexuality.
In May, more than 500 theologians and church leaders signed an "open letter" to the voting delegates of this week's assembly, saying they were concerned about the "fidelity and future" of the ELCA.
According to a news release from the ELCA, the Lutheran CORE, (Coalition for Reform), organized the letter, which says parts of the new sexuality statement "clearly imply that same-sex blessings and the ordination and rostering of homosexual persons in committed relationships are acceptable within the ELCA. The teaching of the church will be changed."
But an ELCA official said after the vote that the new statement appears to have wide support in the pews of the ELCA. Thirty-seven of the ELCA's 65 regional synods - including the two synods bordering the Red River - passed resolutions earlier this year recommending that the new social statement be adopted by the national assembly, while only five synods passed resolutions opposing the statement.
Supporters of the statement said from the assembly floor Wednesday that it provides a realistic and loving perspective of the way people live in America, and will make the ELCA more welcoming to all kinds of people.
Asked what Wednesday's vote might say about the vote scheduled for Friday on changing the ELCA's current policy, which requires unmarried clergy to remain "chaste," and not be involved in sexual relationships, either homosexual or heterosexual, an ELCA official said she didn't want to predict what the vote might mean.
Despite the strong convictions expressed on all sides of the debate over the sexuality statement Wednesday, there was a light-hearted moment, and several scheduled times of prayer.
About 4:30 p.m., as Hanson drew a long session of debate and statements and amending of the sexuality statement to a recess for other business, he told the 1,045 voting delegates plus another 1,000 or so onlookers about the tornado. The whirlwind also took a piece off the steeple of Central Lutheran Church nearby, which is being used for some ELCA assembly activities.
In fact, Hanson told the assembly, "the Pub," which has been installed on the grounds of Central Lutheran, would not open Wednesday night, eliciting some groaning laughter.
Hanson quieted his congregation and said, "My mother, a member of the WCTU, would be saying, 'Praise God.'"
The WCTU, for those too young to know, is the Women's Christian Temperance Union which opposes all use of alcoholic beverages. Martin Luther was never a member.
On Friday, the assembly is scheduled to vote on whether to change ELCA policy to allow gays and lesbians in committed relationships to serve as pastors in congregations which choose to call them.
The assembly began Monday and continues through Sunday.
Live video of the assembly's plenary sessions can be viewed online by going to www.elca.org and finding the link for the assembly.