Minneapolis, MN - Friday I drew the "gay Lutherans" story, as one of my colleagues termed it. I met photographer Bob Crippa at the Minneapolis Convention Center, where the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's 2009 Assembly was already in progress.
The 1,000 voting delegates this week dealt with a lot of important issues, but the one that drew the mainstream media's attention was an amendment that would allow individual congregations to seat gay pastors who are sexually active. With more than 4 million members nationwide, and 830,000 in Minnesota, the world would be watching.
Until now ELCA churches could call gay pastors, but those ministers had to remain celibate. The change would allow churches to hire pastors in same-sex relations that are "publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous" unions.
In many ways the floor debate on the change resembled the political skirmishes I cover at the State Capitol on a regular basis, with a couple of notable exceptions. Bishop Mark Hanson, who presided over the assembly, kept people to strict time limits, so there would be no filibustering to run out the clock.
And, most remarkable to those of us who dwell in the realm of secular politics, the delegates would be called to pause for prayers on a regular basis. This would be, after all, not a decision to be taken lightly or without seeking divine guidance.
In the speeches from the floor it was clear many were struggling with the task of squaring two Biblical tenets; the commandments to love one another, and scriptures condemning homosexual acts.
"If we do this we are supporting sin, according to scripture," Stanley Sommer of Louisiana said, "I feel this is wrong and that is why I cannot support it."
Some argued the cost of being more inclusive would be to drive away those who can't condone something they view as sinful behavior. Church leaders, they said, appeared to be choosing gay and lesbian Lutherans over those who see every passage in the Bible as the inspired word of God.
"The African National congregations may leave the church and I believe you need us," African immigrant Matthew Riak of Grandville, Michigan asserted, "You want us to be part of this church."
Others argued God would not create beings destined, by their very nature, to be pushed away and excluded from the fold.
"I'm not saved because I'm a heterosexual," Pastor Lee Miller of Philadelphia argued, "I am saved because of what God has done."
When the vote came it was 55% to 44% in favor of the change.
It happened 10 minutes before I was scheduled to run outside the convention center and report that they hadn't voted yet. Needless to say I was surprised, considering so many were still lined up at the floor microphones prepared to speak.
"Did they cheer when it passed?" Bob asked. He was outside running cables and preparing to shoot and transmit our live report.
"No," I answered, "They prayed. And then they sang a hymn. A few people hugged."
It wasn't about winners and losers, Bishop Hanson and others explained. It was about love and seeking God's wisdom in deciding a complex, emotional issue.
As a reporter my work wasn't done. I had to collect the postgame quotes from the winners and losers for our 10pm broadcast.
"I feel total exuberance that we've been able to prevail on this issue today and stop the discrimination in our church against gay and lesbian partnered clergy," Pastor Chris Berry told us.
Berry, a heterosexual married father of four, was one of the leaders of GoodSoil, a grassroots movement to allow gay clergy in committed long-term relationships.
On the flip side was the opposition group known as Lutheran Core. Its leader predicted the move would damage ELCA's relationships with other Lutheran denominations as wells as Catholics.
"It's just tragic that this church-wide assembly would move the ELCA away from its own confession of faith," Pastor Mark Chavez said, "From the clear witness in scripture where God says to all of us don't have sex or even think about having sex outside of marriage."
Jennifer de Leon, a Chicago area delegate who supported the amendment, said she's hopeful the predictions of Lutheran Core won't materialize.
"Hopefully everyone will realize that as brothers and sisters in Christ we need to continue to love each other and agree to disagree," she said, "But continue to do ministry, and have much more meaningful ministry the church is known for."
(Copyright 2009 KARE. All rights reserved.)