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Ecumenical pact does not open door to gay clergy

The 2009 Churchwide Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America voted Aug. 20 to enter into full communion with The United Methodist Church. From left, Sarah Lancaster, Bishop Gregory Palmer, president of the United Methodist Council of Bishops, and United Methodist Bishop Sally Dyck of Minneapolis wait for the vote. UMNS photos courtesy of Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

A UMNS Report
By Linda Green*
August 26, 2009

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's acceptance of pastors in same-sex relationships does not pave the way for noncelibate gay clergy to serve in United Methodist churches, officials from the two denominations said.

The Lutheran vote Aug. 21 to drop its ban on gay clergy, coming a day after the denomination approved a full communion pact including the sharing of clergy with The United Methodist Church, raised the question of whether practicing homosexual Lutheran pastors would be permitted in United Methodist pulpits.

Leaders from both churches said Aug. 26, however, that The United Methodist Church’s ban on noncelibate gay clergy is unchanged.

Palmer speaks at a press conference.

“Our Book of Discipline on that subject did not become null and void when they took that vote," said Bishop Gregory Palmer, president of the United Methodist Council of Bishops. "It still applies to United Methodist clergy."

He said there is an expectation that the church's stance "would need to be respected" by clergy appointed to serve United Methodist churches.

On the Lutheran side, Michael Trice, associate executive for Ecumenical and Inter-Religious Relations of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, said the full communion agreement on Aug. 20 “did not compromise” United Methodist ministerial standards.

If clergy in “same-gendered, long-term relationships in the ELCA … want to serve in a United Methodist Church, The United Methodist Church can say we are sorry but that does not fit our protocols," Trice said.

Not a merger

On Aug. 20, the 2009 Churchwide Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America voted to enter into into full communion with The United Methodist Church. The pact was approved earlier by the 2008 United Methodist General Conference, the denomination’s top policy-making body.

Michael Trice, an ecumenical officer of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, says full communion does not require uniformity.

Full communion means that each church acknowledges the other as a partner in the Christian faith, recognizes the authenticity of each other’s baptism and Eucharist, observes the validity of their respective ministries and is committed to working together toward greater unity. Some church leaders are already looking forward to sharing clergy in underserved areas.

In the turmoil over the Lutherans’ subsequent Aug. 21 vote to open the ministry to gay and lesbian clergy in committed relationships, church officials made clear the pact was not a merger.

"The doctrine, polity and standards of ministry of the respective denominations in any full communion agreement are not wiped out when one denomination does something," Palmer said.

The 2008 United Methodist General Conference upheld its decades-old policy that homosexual practice is "incompatible with Christian teaching" and that "self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church."

Unity, not uniformity

“Unity does not require uniformity in all cases," Trice said. "It requires faithfulness to the Gospel, honesty with our Christian partners, and wherever we can share a sense of mission and service in the world."

For the past 11 years, he pointed out, the Lutheran denomination has been in full communion with the United Church of Christ, which allows homosexual clergy.

"We were in full communion long before this church made the decision it did last week. We lived faithfully into that relationship and at the same time respected one another's differences of ecclesiology or polity."

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The 4.7 million-member Lutheran denomination also shares full communion agreements with the Episcopal Church, Moravian Church in America, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the Reformed Church in America.

It is the first such agreement for United Methodists. The United Methodist Church has almost 8 million members in the United States and 11.5 million members worldwide.

A joint commission of members of both churches is being established to iron out details of the ecumenical pact, including the process of appointing and calling clergy to each other’s churches.

*Green is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Linda Green, (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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