Lutherans choose not-so-sudden-death overtime

When you read about a sporting event, the first thing you what to know is who won and who lost. The same thing applies to elections and U.S. Supreme Court cases. Of course, writing that kind of story is much easier when a reporter can look up at a scoreboard and read the numbers, or count the votes. It's tougher when the players and officials in the game are speaking in highly technical, often ancient, theological code and, more than anything else, their goal is to prevent outsiders from being able to tell who won and who lost.

Which brings us to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America task force and its report on how to handle the explosive issue of same-sex unions and the status of clergy who are sexually active outside of marriage. After three years of work, the task force tried to cut the Solomonic baby right down the middle and craft a non-decision decision.

This suggested two things. The ELCA (1) is ready for shared Communion with the via-media experts at the Episcopal Church and (2) the ongoing storm of sex-war headlines will continue in oldline Protestantism as people fight over clashing concepts of truth -- experiential progressives vs. traditionalists who stress moral absolutes. The issue of sex outside of marriage (gay and straight) makes for great headlines and points toward more fundamental differences in almost every set of pews in America.

Almost everyone covered this story and many linked the Lutheran events to the wider global conflict in the Anglican Communion. But what interested me were the leads. Almost everyone said that both sides of the conflict were ticked off (maybe). Who really won and who really lost? Let's go to the instant replays. Thus saith the New York Times:

A task force of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America recommended yesterday that it retain its policy against blessing same-sex unions and ordaining gays, but suggested that sanctions could be avoided for pastors and congregations that chose to do so. ... Some clergy members said that by giving local churches and synods wiggle room, the task force had found a way to preserve the unity of the church.

That sounds like a very mixed bag, except that the church's laws are now meaningless. This reality seems a bit more clear in the Los Angeles Times:

Underscoring deep divisions in the nation's largest Lutheran denomination, a task force on Thursday called for retaining the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's prohibition against ordaining noncelibate homosexuals, but urged caution in disciplining congregations and clergy who ignored the ban.

At the same time, the church's Task Force for ELCA Studies on Sexuality called for no change in the denomination's practice of permitting local congregations to decide whether to bless the unions of same-sex couples.

The Chicago Tribune linked the story to a local leader and stressed that the church had decided that progressive bishops were now free to do whatever they wished. The bottom line? The game continues.

Both gay rights advocates and Lutheran conservatives panned a long-awaited sexuality report released by the nation's largest Lutheran denomination on Thursday, saying it showed no signs of progress in the discussion about same-sex unions and gay clergy. ...

The report did not suggest lifting the celibacy rules imposed on gay clergy, a change that Chicago Bishop Paul Landahl had hoped to see. ... The report did recommend allowing bishops such as Landahl to choose not to punish congregations that ordain non-celibate gays and lesbians, as long as those congregations had discussed it beforehand with local church leaders.

Now, that sounds like a win for the left to me -- in blue Lutheran zip codes. However, the lead that I think captured the most interesting element of the story came from Godbeat veteran Julia Duin at the Washington Times. She declared a winner and noted another fascinating wrinkle. Check this out:

A Lutheran task force handed a victory to homosexual rights groups yesterday by recommending that although the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America should not change its policy against ordaining homosexual clergy, it should not censure churches that break the rule.

But "those who feel conscience-bound to call people [as pastors] in committed same-sex unions should refrain from making the call a media event either as an act of defiance or with the presumption of being prophetic," the task force warned.

In other words, progressive Lutherans, you are not to call attention to yourselves. Do not speak clearly. Keep your head down and run out the clock. Above all, do not turn this into more headlines that will hurt the denomination's finances or statistics. This raises a question for me: What does it mean when conservative newspapers say the left won and liberal newspapers say that no one was victorious? Just curious.

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