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Lutherans Consider Report on Sexuality : Proposal: Task force says heterosexual marriage is not the only legitimate form of commitment. Local churches will now consider the sweeping draft statement.

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From Associated Press

Masturbation is healthy, the Bible supports homosexual unions and teaching teen-agers how to use condoms to prevent disease is a moral imperative, says a task force leading the nation’s largest Lutheran body into the sex wars.

Four years in the making, a draft statement going before the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America declares that the core of human sexuality should be loving, committed relationships--and not limited to heterosexual marriages.

“It is the binding commitment, not the license or ceremony, that lies at the heart of biblical understandings of marriage,” says the statement. “In those circumstances where a legal marriage is not feasible, communities of faith may need to consider other ways of publicly affirming and communally supporting a loving, binding commitment between two people.”

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The 21-page report--”The Church and Human Sexuality: A Lutheran Perspective”--is to be sent to 19,000 pastors and other church leaders in the 5.2-million-member denomination.

Local churches have until June to respond. A second draft, taking the response into account, will be prepared for a church-wide assembly of lay and clergy delegates in 1995.

The report is the ELCA’s first attempt to grapple with sexuality since it was formed in 1988 by the merger of the Lutheran Church in America, the American Lutheran Church and the Assn. of Evangelical Lutheran Churches.

Foreshadowing U.S. ferment over gay rights, mainline Protestant denominations have been convulsed in recent years over demands by gay and lesbian members that churches accord them formal acceptance and the right of ordination. The United Church of Christ is the only major Protestant denomination to permit the ordination of homosexuals.

The church’s 67-member Conference of Bishops has already expressed reservations about the report. The ELCA falls on the moderate end of mainline Protestantism but is more liberal than the 2.6-million-member Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.

A motion this month to postpone work on the sexuality statement indefinitely was withdrawn, but bishops expressed concern that the proposal could threaten the new denomination’s unity.

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The wide-ranging report--developed after what task force members said was probably the most “impassioned discussion of sexuality in the history of American Lutheranism”--begins with a confession that the church has too often overlooked “the created goodness of sexuality.”

The task force urges children, adolescents and adults to learn the pleasures their bodies can give them. “Masturbation, a means of self-pleasuring, is generally appropriate and healthy,” the task force said.

In many places, the report upholds traditional church teachings. Marriage is affirmed as a divine and blessed estate, and teen-agers are encouraged to be chaste until they enter “a permanent commitment.”

The report attacks adultery, promiscuity, sexual abuse, prostitution, anti-gay violence, pornography and the exploitation of sexuality in advertising and entertainment.

“This is not anything goes. There are some things we stand against,” the Rev. Karen Bloomquist, director of the sexuality study, said in an interview.

Bloomquist said the statement balances tradition with the contemporary realities of sexual relationships among unmarried people, heterosexual and homosexual.

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The report cited certain “moral imperatives,” including sex education regarding such traditional concerns as monogamy and abstinence while adding “preventive practices such as the use of condoms.”

Bloomquist said one group the task force kept in mind while urging the church to affirm relationships between unmarried people was those elderly couples who cohabit but remain single for economic reasons.

Homosexuals in particular “have heard much condemnation but little life-giving Gospel addressed to us as gay and lesbian Christians,” the report said.

The task force said it recognizes that many Lutherans take literally the biblical condemnations of homosexuality in the books of Leviticus and Romans, and oppose homosexual activity as contrary to God’s law.

But the task force urged Lutherans to challenge such attitudes. They argue that “responsible biblical interpretation” strongly supports the acceptance and even the blessing of committed same-sex unions and emphasizes what they say is the preeminent biblical command--to “love your neighbor as yourself.”

The passage in the 13th chapter of the letter from the apostle Paul to the Romans continues: “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”

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The report said such love “is pivotal for evaluating homosexual activity. . . . Gay and lesbian persons are indeed among the neighbors we are called by Christ to love.”

Even before it reaches parishioners, the report has proven controversial. At their meeting this month, the bishops worried over the report’s equation of marriage with the term “loving, committed relationship.” They also objected to the use of Scripture in defending homosexual relationships and adopted a statement opposing any official blessings for gay and lesbian unions.

“There is basis neither in Scripture nor tradition for the establishment of an official ceremony by this church for the blessing of a homosexual relationship,” they said.

This week, Bishop Richard Foss of the Synod of Eastern North Dakota said many Lutherans will be confused and dismayed by the challenge to the traditional biblical understanding of homosexuality.

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