Agreeing to disagree

Janet Metcalfe pauses for a moment of prayer along with more than 1,000 members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, which has adopted a statement on human sexuality that could result in individual churches being allowed to hire gay ministers.

MINNEAPOLIS -- Leaders of the country's largest Lutheran denomination have agreed to disagree on homosexuality, endorsing an official statement on human sexuality that says there's room in the church for differing views on an issue that's divided other religious groups.

Delegates to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's nationwide assembly in Minneapolis on Wednesday approved a "social statement on human sexuality." The vote was a prelude to a bigger debate Friday, when delegates will tackle a proposal that would allow individual ELCA congregations to hire people in committed same-sex relationships as clergy.

The social statement lays a theological foundation for a liberalized policy on gay clergy, and supporters of the proposal praised Wednesday's vote. "We are encouraged and hopeful that ... this will result in the church's elimination of the current ban on ministers in same gender relationships," said Emily Eastwood, executive director of Lutherans Concerned/North America, a group of pro-gay Lutherans.

Opponents of the social statement said it ignores clear scriptural direction that homosexuality is a sin.

"We are asked to affirm a description of sexuality based on a reality that's shaped not by Scripture but by today's culture," said Curtis Sorbo of Adams, N.D., a convention delegate from the ELCA's Eastern North Dakota Synod.

The Rev. Dr. Herman R. Yoos, bishop of the South Carolina Synod, wrote in an open letter that he has been "wrestling with scripture, tradition and our Lutheran theology" for years, and has concluded that marriage is "a gift (from God) of a lifelong faithful relationship of husband and wife." But even traditional marriage can be riddled with sinfulness.

"Because of this brokenness (caused by original sin), nothing is as God intended," Yoos wrote. "Therefore, I believe that one's sexual orientation is not primarily a conscious choice, but rather is a deeply ingrained part of one's identity. It seems to me that gays and lesbians no more choose their sexual orientation than heterosexuals do."

Yoos, who is attending the meeting in Minneapolis, wrote that he wants "to find ways to allow congregations and synods that choose to do so to recognize and support and hold publicly accountable lifelong, monogamous, same gender relationships."

But Yoos opposes ordination of gays and lesbians. "For me, ordination is not a justice issue, nor an issue of civil rights; but it is an issue of spiritual discernment and accountability," he wrote.

The social statement garnered 66.67 percent of the vote, the precise minimum needed for passage by a two-thirds majority. The new clergy policy needs only a simple majority to pass.