Don't ask, don't tell, don't punish

elcaThe Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has ordained gay clergy for years. Since it formed out of a merger of three Lutheran church bodies in 1988, it has defrocked three clergy for violating the church body's requirement that gay clergy abstain from sexual relationships. At the group's national assembly last week in Chicago, a vote to permit homosexual clergy to engage in sexual relationships failed on Friday but another vote requesting that the church body avoid disciplining gay clergy who violate the celibacy policy was passed on Saturday. I've complained before that every time a major happening occurs in the ELCA, many reporters fail to distinguish between the church body and the other Lutheran bodies that don't share the same doctrinal perspective. But this story was different. I read dozens of stories and they all identified the ELCA by name and some even mentioned other Lutheran bodies and their opposing views! We received more than a few notes from non-ELCA Lutheran readers who were pleased by the distinction. But we received complaints on other media coverage issues.

Rachel Zoll covered the story for the Associated Press. Here's how she began:

A national assembly of Evangelical Lutherans urged its bishops Saturday to refrain from defrocking gay and lesbian ministers who violate a celibacy rule, but rejected measures that would have permitted ordaining gays churchwide.

Still, advocates for full inclusion of gays were encouraged, calling the resolution a powerful statement in support of clergy with same-gender partners. The conservative group Lutheran CORE, however, said bishops will now feel more secure in ignoring denomination policy.

By the middle of the story, she explains she's talking about the mainline Protestant group the ELCA. But I'm not sure that "Evangelical Lutherans" is the best way to describe the ELCA on first reference. This error was repeated elsewhere.

Either way, the first sentence doesn't quite make sense. Gays already are ordained throughout the ELCA -- and have been for decades. And the phrase "full inclusion of gays" is just loaded and shouldn't be used. I'm not disagreeing that it's the phrase of choice for people who advocate ordination of gay clergy, permission of gay clergy to be sexually active, church sanctioning of gay marriage, etc. But people who oppose such doctrinal positions because they approach Scriptural teachings on the matter in a different way -- in the historic and traditional way, even -- would never phrase their position as one fighting "full inclusion of gays." It's also imprecise. And in hot-button issues such as homosexuality, it's wise to spell things out.

I have friends in the ELCA who were both happy and unhappy about the 538-431 vote. But people on both sides kept mentioning that they would have been content if the vote could have been delayed until an eight-year study on human sexuality is released in 2009. Keep that in mind when reading this one-sided story from Denver Post reporter Monte Whaley. Far better was Susan Hogan/Albach's story in the Chicago Sun-Times:

The nation's largest Lutheran denomination on Saturday passed a measure calling on church leaders to "refrain from or demonstrate restraint" in disciplining gay clergy in committed relationships.

A day earlier, church members meeting at Navy Pier voted down a measure that would have ended the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's celibacy requirement for gay clergy.

Still, Saturday's 538-431 decision was widely viewed as historic and a sign of shifting thinking on homosexuality within the 4.8-million member denomination.

"It's a huge victory," said Jeremy Posadas, a voting church member from Decatur, Ga. "The gospel of inclusion has won, and we're going to keep winning."

Some call move 'tragic' The Rev. Mark Chavez, leader of Lutheran CORE, a group that opposes non-celibate gays serving as pastors, called the vote "tragic."

"This decision will be an excuse for bishops to disobey ELCA policy," he said. "This decision does not reflect the will of the people, but of bishops and clergy who disregard God's word."

Bishop Paul Landahl of the Metropolitan Chicago Synod spearheaded the measure, which calls on church leaders to "refrain from or demonstrate restraint" in disciplining those who violate the celibacy policy.

Concise, balanced, straightforward and informative. Margaret Ramirez of the Chicago Tribune also covered the historic vote and provided some interesting perspective and quotes from people who opposed the move. There's this sketchy paragraph early on:

For church advocates who support inclusion of gays in the church, the resolution was hailed as a partial victory and a step toward full inclusion of homosexuals in the church. But conservative leaders saw the move as contradictory to the church's policy against ordination of gay ministers and predicted the resolution would open the door to chaos in the church.

lesbian gay christiansAgain, is it wise to look into the hearts of people who retain the historic interpretation of Scripture on this issue and deem that they want to exclude gays from the church? Or keep them from being involved in the church? Unless reporters have gotten better at looking into the hearts of people then they've been in the past, such biased language does not help illuminate the divide in this and other churches. Anyway, Ramirez mentions the two next-largest Lutheran church bodies and speaks with ELCA members who are not pleased with the change in the church's discipline practice:

Conservative leaders in the church, like Rev. Mark Chavez, director of the conservative Word Alone Network, said the disciplinary measure contradicted church policy and provided a loophole for gay clergy to minister. He also expressed concern the measure would lead to widespread lawsuits if a bishop chose to use discipline. He said the new resolution gives bishops permission to ignore the standards and disregard the clear word of God. But Chavez stopped short of saying the measure would split the denomination.

"Any time you start ignoring God's word on matters, you better watch out because you're in dangerous territory," he said.

Jaynan Clark Egland, president of Word Alone Network, said the measure created a double standard for discipline.

"I don't know as a Christian, as a pastor and as a parent, what really would be worse -- a church with no biblical standards to govern our ministry or standards we don't intend to enforce. To refrain from discipline in the home is bad parenting, but we're about to do so in the Christ's church."

Now, Chavez chose to be ordained into and remains ordained within a church body that permits gay clergy to minister, so I doubt he said that this 2007 move was a "loophole for gay clergy to minister." But the overall view of Egland and Chavez is mentioned, which is good for perspective.

There are many other stories worth taking a look at, from the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel's Tom Heinen piece to Daniel Blake's story in Christianity Today. Heinen's earlier piece on the convention was full of details.

The AP also had a story on the Atlanta pastor whose defrocking this year brought some of these issues to a head. But for the hands-down best coverage on the Rev. Bradley Schmeling and how his case has progressed, read Southern Voice. We don't normally cover non-mainstream press, and Southern Voice is a gay weekly -- but month after month the reporters there have been on the story and it shows. One of the things I loved about Zach Hudson's latest article is how it concisely explained some of the church politics at play leading up to this decision. St. John's is the parish Schmeling serves:

As the public face of the fight, the St. John's team -- supported by Lutherans Concerned/North America, a gay affirming ELCA ministry, and Goodsoil, a coalition of gay affirming groups seeking change within the church -- mailed out a video documentary which "tells the story of St. John's" to all 1,072 voting members of the Churchwide Assembly.

The gay rights activists on hand at the assembly have led press events and initiated conversations with voting members. LC/NA and Goodsoil published and distributed "A Place Within My Walls," a 24-page devotional booklet which contains the names of 82 ELCA ministers who are coming out to the at-large ELCA for the first time.

"I need to tell you that we contacted more than twice as many pastors to check with them about including their names," said LC/NA Executive Director Emily Eastwood. She credited the listed ministers with bravery in the face of uncertain consequences.

Good reporting and very interesting to boot.

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