Outrage as US Lutherans Ease Rules on Pastors in Gay Relationships

The largest Lutheran body in the US has enflamed a debate in the wider Christian community as it controversially eased guidance on the way bishops should deal with homosexuality within the Church.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) has urged bishops to use restraint in punishing homosexual clergy who actively participate in sexual relationships, according to an announcement made on Saturday.

|PIC1|The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) passed a resolution at its assembly urging bishops to refrain from disciplining pastors who are in "faithful committed same-gender relationships".

The resolution was passed by a vote of 538-431.

A day earlier, attendees voted down a measure that would have ended a ban on non-celibate gay clergy. But Saturday's vote means those who violate that policy may no longer be tried or punished if their guiding bishops so decide.

Phil Soucy, spokesman for Lutherans Concerned, a gay-lesbian rights group within the Church said: "The Church ... has just said 'Do not do punishments'. That is huge."

The 4.8-million member ELCA had previously allowed gays to serve as pastors, but only under the condition that they abstained from any sexual relations.

The conference also instructed a committee that is developing a social statement on sexuality to further investigate the issue. The committee is scheduled to release its report in 2009.

Since the ELCA was founded in 1988, the body has ordered three pastors in gay relationships to be removed from their ministries.

The announcement has greatly outraged conservatives within the Christian community who follow the historic Christian teachings, which declares homosexuality a sin according to Scripture.

Rev. Mark Chavez, leader of Lutheran CORE, a group that says non-celibate gays should not serve as pastors, called the decision "tragic".

"This decision will be an excuse for bishops to disobey ELCA policy," he said. "This decision does not reflect the will of the people, but of bishops and clergy who disregard God's word."

The gay clergy issue has become an increasingly volatile subject amongst Christian denominations - in particular the 77-million member strong worldwide Anglican Communion is on the verge of schism as it debates the controversial issue.