CHICAGO — A task force of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America recommended Thursday that its leaders officially recognize same-sex unions and allow gays in committed relationships to serve as clergy.
At the same time, the task force asked members of the church to respect congregations and synods that disagree because they believe such actions would violate Scripture.
If approved, the measures would change church policy, which allows ordination of gay clergy but requires them to be celibate. In the report, the task force proposed a four-step process that outlines a possible path for change, starting with recognition of same-sex relationships.
"The task force agreed that this church cannot responsibly consider any changes to its policies unless this church is able and willing in some way to recognize lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships," the report said.
The recommendation will be voted on at the churchwide assembly in Minneapolis in August. Reaction to the recommendation was expected to range from elation to disapproval.
The report is yet another example of a U.S. Protestant denomination struggling to define the role of gays and lesbians in church life. Similar questions have been debated in the Episcopal and United Methodist churches in recent years.
The nearly 5-million-member Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which is based in Chicago, is the nation's largest Lutheran denomination.
The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod are separate denominations that accept a more literal interpretation of the Bible and do not ordain gays.
The task force stopped short of recommending a liturgical rite for gay unions or using the word "marriage" to describe them. But the report said that "most of the task force members believe that ways can be found within local congregations to surround the commitments of such couples with prayer."
The Rev. Peter Strommen, the Minnesota pastor who served as chairman of the 15-member task force, said a context for public promises would help the church better define those relationships.
"Given we have no clarity or structure, we feel it's important for there to be an equivalent of public accountability," Strommen said.
In addition to the recommendations on ministry policies, the task force released a proposed social statement on human sexuality for the church.
Drawing from Martin Luther's spoken words that spawned the 16th century Protestant Reformation, the task force called on its members to respect each other's views about same-gender relationships as grounded in conscience.
The statement, titled "Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust," recognizes marriage as a covenant between a man and a woman, but also acknowledges same-sex couples.
"Within the last decades, this church has begun to understand and experience in new ways the need of same-gender-oriented individuals to seek relationships of lifelong companionship and commitment," the statement says.
The debate on gay clergy in the church took on greater urgency in 2007, when the Rev. Bradley Schmeling, an Atlanta pastor, was removed from the clergy roster after he told his bishop that he was in a relationship with a man.
That August, the assembly urged its bishops to refrain from disciplining gay ministers who are in committed, same-sex relationships.