Havre Daily News
Montana Lutherans made a pilgrimage to Havre this weekend to discuss a number of issues involving their faith. It was the first time Lutherans have held their annual state assembly in Havre in more than 40 years. There were dicussions on a number of issues, but the most complex debate mirrored one that has been taking place across America.
At a national assembly in August, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, or ELCA, will debate whether to create a blessing rite ceremony for gay and lesbian churchgoers who are in committed relationships and whether it will allow homosexual pastors to serve if they are in monogamous relationships.
About 300 delegates of the Montana Synod of the ELCA spent Saturday afternoon talking over the issue and voted 171-130 in favor of keeping things as they are.
"We looked long and hard at this," synod leader Bishop Rich Omland said. "We had a deliberate, thoughtful and respectful conversation. This is a tough issue. I was very proud about how our assembly debated and talked about this resolution."
With the vote, Montana's Lutherans sent a message to the churchwide assembly, to be held the second week of August in Orlando, Fla. Eleven of the synod's members will travel there, joining more than 1,000 delegates from the other 64 synods across the country, and debate the issue.
The delegates in Havre represented more than 52,000 Lutherans in 149 congregations, including four in northern Wyoming. The tradition of holding an annual meeting goes back more than 400 years, Omland said after the assembly had been concluded, but the issue of homosexual relationships is a decidely modern one.
"It's a sign of the age in which we live," Omland said. "We're trying to figure out what God is saying to us about this issue."
Churchgoers on both sides of the debate are all good, faithful people, he said, and both sides were able to get along very well this weekend during the meeting, held in the Montana State University-Northern gym.
The church now allows gay and lesbians to be ordained as pastors, but requires that they remain celebate. Those in favor of changing the rules want to allow gays and lesbians who are in active, committed relationships to serve as pastors.
Heterosexual pastors are allowed to serve whether they are single or married. If single, they must remain celebate.
"This is not about promiscuity," Omland said. "If a person is promiscuous in his or her behavior, they are not allowed to serve as pastors whether they are gay, lesbian or straight."
There also is a debate over a proposed blessing ceremony for members of congregations who are in committed homosexual relationships. The rite of blessing would not be the same as marriage, Omland stressed.
"Our church teaches that marriage is between a man and a woman," he said. One of the points of contention is what the rite of blessing would actually mean, Omland added.
He pointed out that the debate is not over whether gays and lesbians are allowed to attend Lutheran services.
"We welcome them into our congregations," Omland said.
Omland said the message sent by Montanans, along with those sent from congregations in other states, will help shape the outcome of the debate.
"We still debate it, think about it, and struggle over it, but it will certainly help shape the way we think about it" when Lutherans from across the nation gather and take up the issue, he said.
While the debate on the role of homosexuals in the church was one of the more serious issues considered at the state meeting, it was only part of a 2-day assembly. The delegates discussed a number of issues and heard from guest speakers.
The keynote speaker, the Rev. Jack Fortin, spoke about the Christian vocation, said the Rev. Brad Ulgenes, pastor at Havre's First Lutheran Church.
"He was a dynamic speaker, probably one of the best I've heard on the issue," Ulgenes said. Fortin talked about building relationships with neighbors and bettering the world, he said.
"I think (the delegates) were challenged ... to build up and make better God's world," Ulgenes said. "What happens during the week is just as holy as what happens on Sunday."
Barbara Hickel, who serves as a lay minister in Billings, was honored with the Spirit of Hope Award. Hickel serves as a volunteer chaplain at the Montana Women's Prison in Billings.
"Some of these people have been through horrible situations, and she gives them hope and love," Ulgenes said of Hickel.
The delegates also received a crosscultural treat when guests from the Fort Belknap and Rocky Boy's Indian reservations visited the assembly to share traditional dances and ceremonies as part of a mini powwow
"In Montana, we need to get to know our Native American neighbors," Omland said. "Our strategy is to break down our own prejudices and get to know our neighbors."
"It was a wonderful experience of another culture," Ulgenes said. "People were really receptive. Our goal is to build a closer relationship with our Indian brothers and sisters. We're hoping to do some more things together. We think that we can build bridges instead of making walls."