The first draft of a 21-page Lutheran statement on sexuality says that non-compulsive masturbation is healthy, that sexually active teen-agers should use condoms and that churches should re-examine their traditional disapproval of gay and lesbian couples.
The draft is subject to revision before the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America considers voting on it in 1995. But the denomination has been in an uproar since October, both over its contents and their results: headlines saying "Lutherans to Encourage Masturbation" and news stories suggesting that Lutherans were ready to bless same-sex marriages.
Parts of the document have already provoked disclaimers from bishops in the nation's largest Lutheran body, prompting the resignation of the top official linked to the statement and leading the denomination's magazine, The Lutheran, to call the document "disturbing" and "mortally flawed."
In the Los Angeles area, Bishop J. Roger Anderson has scheduled a daylong seminar for pastors next week, as the busy pre-Christmas season gets under way, "because of the urgency of this matter." An educator who helped write the first draft lamented the critical fallout.
The controversy was put in broader perspective by a San Fernando Valley pastor.
"I think it's important for congregations to realize that this debate (over contemporary sexual issues) is not unique to us," said the Rev. Bryan Woken, pastor of the Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church in West Hills.
"Presbyterians, Methodists, Catholics and Judaism have all had to deal with a lot of these issues," Woken said.
Most major religious bodies have struggled over questions of homosexual behavior since the 1970s. The closest parallel for the ELCA, as the denomination is popularly known, is the furor that erupted within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in 1991 when a report on sexuality suggested blessing, among other things, responsible and caring intercourse outside of marriage by teen-agers and homosexuals. The Presbyterians' General Assembly later overwhelmingly rejected the report.
The Lutheran bishops particularly objected to the report's assertion that the customary church attitude toward gay and lesbian sexual activity--namely, to love the sinner but hate the sin--"needs to be questioned on biblical and theological grounds, indeed, challenged because of its harmful effect on gay and lesbian people and their families."
In contrast, the report claimed that faithful gay relationships or even the blessing of committed same-sex unions is "strongly supported by responsible biblical interpretation."
Woken said that the document's analysis was "not very persuasive" on why certain biblical prohibitions against gay sex might not apply to committed same-sex relations today. "If you are going to part from a plain reading (of the Bible), then you need a better one than they provided," he said.
The 5.2-million-member denomination has been studying the issues periodically since 1989 when a 17-member task force was created to hold hearings and write the first draft. (The other major U.S. Lutheran body, the conservative Missouri Synod Lutherans, is not involved in the study.)
But officials agreed that the problems began in mid-October when the Associated Press was given a copy of the document a few days before it was mailed to the 19,000 pastors in the ELCA.
The objections pouring into the denomination's Chicago headquarters led to the announcement that the Rev. Karen Bloomquist, director of the study, last month said she "reluctantly agreed" to end her participation. "I did not want to divert the ELCA's attention from the important deliberative process around this statement," Bloomquist said.
An editorial in the December issue of The Lutheran suggests that the study process should continue. "This culture needs a word from the church and the church needs to ascertain its mind," wrote Edgar R. Trexler, the editor. But he termed "clearly questionable" what the draft's authors decided was the best attitude toward same-sex intimacy. "To some, this hints that the task force had an agenda."
The criticisms greeting the draft's release distressed Stephanie Taylor-Dinwiddie of Los Angeles, the only Southern California member of the sexuality task force.
"We were not coming in with an agenda," she said, remarking on what she called "an unfair editorial" in the denomination's magazine. "We put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into this. None of us suggested that we have all the answers."
She said she feels that premarital sex is wrong. "I would rather people wait until marriage," she said. At the same time, regardless of what the church might advise, many young people will engage in sexual relations, she said. The draft document suggests that ethical responsibility in those cases calls for the use of condoms to prevent unwanted pregnancies and the spread of disease.
"We need to give people in this church credit and to give them the opportunity to reflect on their lives," Taylor-Dinwiddie said.
Congregations are expected to study the statement after the holidays and submit by June 30 their responses and ideas for revision.
Bishop Anderson of Los Angeles, whose five-county synod extends as far north as Bakersfield and San Luis Obispo, informed pastors that a symposium will be held Tuesday at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks.
Anderson said the 10-hour session "is basically to help our pastors be well-grounded as they lead their people through the biblical and theological issues."
One of the speakers will be theologian Timothy Lull, dean of Pacific Lutheran Seminary in Berkeley, who has advocated that churches change their views of gays and lesbians.