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On divisive issue of gay clergy, two churches weigh softer stance

Lutherans and Presbyterians may allow local congregations to choose people in same-sex relationships as pastors.

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Two mainline Protestant denominations, after decades of wrestling over the place of homosexuality in the church, are considering allowing local congregations to select pastors who are in long-term, monogamous, same-gender relationships.

The church council of the largest Lutheran body in the US, the 5-million-member Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA), decided this week to send such a recommendation to its national assembly. The proposal would take effect if supported by majority vote at the assembly's biennial meeting in August.

The 2.3-million-member Presbyterian Church (USA) approved the idea at its national assembly last summer, but a majority of the church's 173 district bodies, called presbyteries, must vote in favor by June for it to become church policy.

While it's not clear that either denomination will embrace the change, their actions reflect the shifting views on homosexuality in society, as well as an acknowledgement that the old consensus in the churches has broken down and a new one is not likely to arise soon. The churches are seeking to accommodate differing views and avoid a denominational split.

"There is no question that attitudes have shifted in the church in the way in which this issue has been interpreted theologically," says the Rev. Peter Strommen, chairman of the ELCA task force for studies on sexuality, which developed the recommendation.

"People of sincere faith are coming to different, strongly held conclusions" based on different interpretations of scripture and tradition, he said during a Tuesday teleconference with reporters. "It's hard to imagine that as being possible 15 years ago."

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