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FAITH: Issue of homosexuality could dominate ELCA convention in GF

Two differing resolutions regarding proposed big changes in how the nation's largest Lutheran church deals with the issue of homosexual pastors promise to dominate debate this weekend at a convention in Grand Forks.

Two differing resolutions regarding proposed big changes in how the nation's largest Lutheran church deals with the issue of homosexual pastors promise to dominate debate this weekend at a convention in Grand Forks.

About 520 voting delegates are expected at the annual assembly of the Eastern North Dakota Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which opens Saturday morning and closes at noon Sunday in the Alerus Center.

Each of the 232 congregations gets at least two lay delegates and larger ones get more; every pastor is a voting delegate.

The big news this year for the 4.7-million-member ELCA is that after years of study and talk, a task force put out a proposal to change the denomination's longstanding prohibition against clergy being sexually active outside of a traditional marriage. Drawing up a four-part proposal, the 30-member task force is asking the national church, at its biennial convention in August in Minneapolis, to begin finding ways to ordain gays and lesbians who are in "publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships."

Three members of the task force issued a dissenting report saying the proposal contradicts traditional Christian teaching on marriage and Lutheran views of the authority of scripture.


Part of the proposal would, apparently, leave it up to the 65 regional synods, or districts, and their bishops and pastors, as to whether or not allow such changes in clergy rosters.

Supporters of gay clergy, while welcoming the overall tenor of the task force's work, have criticized not making it a churchwide mandate, as a sort of civil rights issue.

Opponents of the change say, among other things, that it reverses not only current ELCA policy, but is contrary to centuries of traditional teaching on marriage within Christendom.

In some ways, the debate is more important in the greater Red River Valley than anywhere else: no where in the United States is there a population more Lutheran. Aside from other Lutheran denominations, including the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, ELCA members alone in this region equal 27 percent of the general population. By comparison, about 20 percent of the population of eastern North Dakota and northwest Minnesota is Catholic.

But in other ways, it hasn't been as big a debate here as it has in other parts, including the Twin Cities, where some ELCA congregations have hired gay and lesbian pastors.

Bishop Bill Rindy, the Mayville, N.D., native ordained last summer as the bishop of the Fargo-based synod, says there has not been a request by anyone to ordain a sexually active homosexual as a pastor.

One parish, Elk Valley and Bethel, north of Larimore, N.D., drafted a resolution for the synod to vote on this weekend, asking "that the ELCA continue to rely on the social statements of its predecessor church bodies, as the historical documents that express the faithful Christian teachings on human sexuality for our church members and those in leadership roles within our church," and reject the proposed changes that will be voted on a the national convention in August.

Meanwhile, the synod's Hunger and Justice Committee and the Fargo chapter of "Lutherans Concerned," a group advocating the ordination of practicing homosexuals, drafted a resolution asking the synod to "be publicly engaged in inclusive ministry with its gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered brothers and sisters in Christ." The resolution refers to a 1989 resolution by the synod that affirmed full membership rights and responsibilities for gays and lesbians in the synod's congregations. The issue of ordaining openly gay and lesbian pastors isn't explicitly addressed in the resolution.


Bishop Rindy has declined to give his views on the issue, saying he wants to allow the process of decision-making at the synod and national level to be completed without him weighing in.

Another resolution on the agenda this weekend, while seeming to be unrelated to the homosexual clergy issue, may be connected.

The Rev. John Bradford, new pastor at First Lutheran in Fargo (replacing Rindy), and the Rev. Rafe Allison, pastor of Peace Lutheran in Devils Lake, urge all congregations to give another 10 percent of their congregational giving to the synod.

Already there is evidence that the possibility of homosexuals being ordained has hurt giving nationwide in the ELCA.

After the ELCA's Church Council in November declined to require a two-thirds vote in August on the issue, rather going with a simple majority needed to change church policy on ordaining gays, 35 synods cut their 2009 mission support to the ELCA, according to church officials. It meant $2.4 million less, a 3.5 percent cut, an ELCA official told "The Lutheran" magazine. The ELCA's national office in Chicago has cut employees, reduced executive salaries and identified possible program cuts.

But Rindy said it's difficult to connect lowered giving to the issue, because the overall downturn in the economy has hit churches, too.

His synod, however, has seen giving go up over the past year, Rindy said.

Reach Lee at (701) 780-1237 or 740-9891; e-mail slee@gfherald.com .

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