The nation's largest Lutheran denomination opened debate Monday over a proposal to allow noncelibate gays and lesbians to serve in the clergy.
Leaders of the 4.7-million-member Evangelical Lutheran Church in America are expected to decide during their weeklong Churchwide Assembly in Minneapolis whether to alter existing policy, which requires gays and lesbians in ministry to remain celibate.
The new policy would permit local congregations, if they wanted, to choose ministers or lay leaders who were in "lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships."
Similar efforts to change the policy have failed five times over the last 12 years, according to church analysts.
The governing body's 1,045 voting members also will consider a long-anticipated social statement on human sexuality that, among various things, identifies marriage as a union between a man and a woman. Such statements are intended to guide church policy. Heterosexual clergy are allowed to have sex only within marriage.
Presiding Bishop Mark S. Hanson on Monday dismissed suggestions that the clergy measure could lead to a schism, saying the unfolding discussions had prompted "very thoughtful engagements" in a church that has long struggled to reconcile the role of gays and lesbians with biblical authority.
"I do not believe that human sexuality for us as Lutherans defines the church," Hanson said at a news conference in Minneapolis that was broadcast live on the denomination's website. "Therefore, human sexuality should not be the occasion to divide the church."
Last month, leaders of the 2.1-million-member Episcopal Church, meeting in Anaheim, lifted a de facto ban on gay bishops and agreed to consider same-sex marriage liturgies.
Advocates of change in the Lutheran denomination argue that their church has a responsibility to accept all its members equally. They point out that the new policy would be voluntary.
"We fully believe the church will be a better place and a better student for its mission if it is fully inclusive," said Phil Soucy, a spokesman for Goodsoil, a coalition of gay rights groups in the church. "Christ did not discriminate."
But those who favor traditional Lutheran positions on marriage believe the proposed policy reflects cultural norms rather than the word of God. They say a liberalized approach would drive away conservative Lutherans and undermine relations with other Christian denominations.
"A church ought to be focused on Jesus Christ and not voting on whether the Bible applies in terms of how humans are to live in a sexual relationship," said the Rev. Mark Chavez, director of Lutheran Coalition for Reform.
Church leaders acknowledge the lack of consensus, even among those on a task force that crafted the proposal. The clergy measure is expected to come up for a vote Friday.
On Monday evening, representatives in Minneapolis decided a simple majority would be sufficient for passage. The measure's critics wanted to require a two-thirds majority.