While the Churchwide Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America started their afternoon session with a Bible study, a possible tornado hit Minneapolis just south of downtown and apparently even coming right up to the convention center were the meeting was being held. While there have been trees downed in Minneapolis, and there is damage to Central Lutheran Church’s steeple and other property in the area, there were no immediate reports of injuries from the storm. ┬áBecause the assembly is being held in a storm safe hall, the only disruptions were a few announcements about the storm.

This means that after dealing with the Lutheran Malaria Initiative yesterday, and the HIV/AIDS strategy funding and some memorials this morning, they were able to get to work on today’s main item of business: the proposed social statement on human sexuality.

What’s that? Lutherans talking about sex? As hard as it may be to believe, that was the case today.

Social Statement on Human Sexuality

The assembly took up several proposed amendments to the proposed study. A couple were editorial or minor changes. There was a successful amendment that added to the text of a statement that there are those who view marriage as an appropriate term to describe the relationship of same-gender couples wording to indicate that they differ from historic Christian tradition and the Lutheran Confessions. While true, I’m not sure what the point of spelling that out specifically in the social statement might be aside from taking a underhanded swipe at the recognition that the membership of the ELCA include people with that understanding.

There were also a couple of significant amendments before the assembly that would have altered the substance of the proposed statement significantly. The most notable of those was one that would have removed portions (all?) of a section that describes the various perspectives on the topic of homosexuality that exist within the ELCA. The statement recognizes that the church is not of one mind on the matter, and so describes the various positions held by members, given that there is no consensus in this church body. In it’s place, the amendment would have substituted language from old statements on sexuality from predecessor church bodies, statements passed in 1970 and 1980. In a nutshell, this would have re-stated a traditionalist stance toward homosexuality in place of an acknowledgment that there is now a diversity of opinion on these questions and what a biblical and faithful response as Christians should be. Another amendment would have deleted the paragraph recognizing that some within the church do regard marriage as an appropriate term for same-gender relationships.

These amendments were defeated by a wide margin, each having no votes exceed a 2 to 1 margin against votes for the amendments with the effect of moving toward a more traditionalist approach. I found the wide margins here to be quite startling. If you have read previous notes I’ve written about about the Churchwide Assembly, you might surmise that I am not surprised at the direction of the majority here. But that more than 2/3 of the voting members rejected the attempts by traditionalists to insert their own preferred language is not what I would have expected going into this week.

When the assembly turned to final passage of the statement, the vote required approval of 2/3 of the voting members casting votes. This is required by the ELCA’s constitution for adoption of social statements such as the one before the Assembly today. The final vote came in at 676 for and 338 against. Seem close? It’s as close as it could possibly get, actually. There were exactly 2/3 of the votes cast in favor of approving the statement, no fraction above or below. By the exact amount required, the social statement was approved as amended.

Looking Ahead

Friday is the day that the Assembly will take up consideration of ministry policies (i.e. the question of allowing ordination of gay and lesbian persons in publicly accountable same-sex relationships). This is really the issue that dominates the assembly, at least in terms of decisions for the history books and newspaper headlines. Today’s actions continue to show that a change in ordination policy is more and more likely during this assembly. After the sound rejection of amendments geared at clearly stating a traditionalist understanding of homosexuality and the church, I must move my assessment from a change in policy being possible to being likely. It would appear that there is a significant majority no longer willing to simply re-iterate the traditionalist position on gay and lesbian individuals and relationships. I still cannot predict that changes in ordination policy will be approved later this week. The votes today were essentially in favor of an acknowledgment of a diversity of opinion. The rejected that the traditional stance should be the single one that church takes or can now take. It is not necessarily the case that the voting members are now ready to take yet another step.

It still seems to me highly likely that a majority will vote for changes in policy. The larger question now might be what sort of margin it is likely to have. I’m not going to predict that. A 2/3 majority is still very unlikely, but less far-fetched than it was earlier. The eyes of many will be watching this.

Thursday’s business will include preliminary discussion on ministry policies and consideration of the full communion agreement with the United Methodist Church, amongst other business.

The proposed draft of the social statement on human sexuality (before amendments) can be downloaded from this link: http://www.elca.org/What-We-Believe/Social-Issues/Social-Statements-in-Process/JTF-Human-Sexuality/Proposed-Social-Statement.aspx