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Eastern North Dakota ELCA synod won't back gay clergy plan

GRAND FORKS, N.D. - Delegates at the annual assembly of the Eastern North Dakota Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America on Sunday in Grand Forks narrowly defeated - 187 to 167 - a resolution asking the national convention to approve changing ELCA policy to allow clergy to be in same-sex relationships.

But delegates overwhelmingly approved a resolution asking the same assembly in Minneapolis in August to adopt a new "Social Statement on Human Sexuality," drafted by the same task force that used it as the basis for allowing clergy to be in same-sex relationships.

The two votes reflect the differences and agreements in the synod on the issues, said Bishop Bill Rindy, after the two-day assembly ended.

The synod has 100,000 people in 232 congregations.

The 20-vote margin over changing clergy rules that now approve sexual activity only within traditional marriage was the closest vote by far of several during the assembly, which totaled 482 delegates, including 108 pastors.

Their main work was the task force's two documents released this winter to be voted on in August: a new "Social Statement on Human Sexuality" and also a recommended four-step process to change ELCA policy to allow ministers to be in "publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous same-gender relationships."

Rindy said, based on the voting, his people seem to be "pretty squarely" in favor of finding ways for congregations to recognize and support such relationships for laypeople, but not for pastors.

"I was very pleased at the respect with which they treated each other, as brothers and sisters in Christ," said Rindy, a Mayville, N.D., native. "As a bishop you can't ask for anything more."

Clear differences were expressed, though.

The Rev. Rebecca Miller of Edinburg, N.D., said Scripture at several points makes clear that gay and lesbian sexual activity is wrong, listing it with other sins.

"Yes, we are all created by God, and of course we all are loved by God," Miller said. "At the same time," she said, quoting the ELCA's liturgy, " 'we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.' "

"Our inner urges do not reveal what is right," Miller said. "God's word reveals what is right."

But Ron Ellingson of Fargo, a member of the synod's Hunger and Justice Committee that drafted two resolutions, urged the assembly to affirm full participation of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people in the life of the church, including in the clergy.

After the assembly, Ellingson said that despite concerns about the issue dividing the church, "I would hope we could live together faithfully in the midst of disagreement," he said, echoing the proposed social statement.

Miller said after the assembly that while the issue, however it's decided, might affect church numbers, that isn't what should drive the discussion over it.

"We get so emotional on both sides," Miller said. "Maybe the super-conservatives get worried that 'everyone is trying to take over my church' and liberals might say, 'What about what poor so-and-so is going through?' "

While saying it's important to extend compassion to those who need it, Miller said, "Maybe if we could look at it at a little more logical level, that would be good."

The assembly also wrangled before approving a resolution urging all congregations to give 10 percent of their income to the synod office in Fargo.

The 232 congregations take in $33 million a year in offerings, and pass on about 3.6 percent, or $1.2 million last year, to the synod office. The synod passed on about 40 percent of it to the national church in Chicago, getting back again about a fifth of that amount in various programs. National and synod offices are hurting.

The synod ended last year with a deficit and had to cut this year's budget, including employee hours and benefits. The assembly adopted a 2010 budget of $1.49 million, a slight increase from the revised 2009 figures.

One of the resolution's authors, the Rev. John Bradford of Fargo, said it was clear to him that the Bible tells Christians to give at least 10 percent of their gross income to their church, and congregations should do the same to the synod.

But the Rev. Steve Berntson of Jamestown said the proposal seemed "legalistic" and that congregations should feel free to give to other needs.