Synods, the 65 regional bodies of the new Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, have held their first round of meetings since the denomination came into being Jan. 1 and, not surprisingly, homosexuality and South Africa topped the list of concerns.
Events in South Africa and in Namibia - the territory of Southwest Africa ruled by Pretoria in defiance of the United Nations - have long been a concern of all three of the predecessor Lutheran bodies that merged to make up the new 5.3 million-member ELCA.Indeed, the first social policy statement of the new ELCA, the nation's fourth-largest Protestant religious body, was to condemn apartheid and call for the independence of Namibia, where a large portion of the majority black population is Lutheran.
During the synod meetings, which also dealt with a host of internal organizational issues necessary to get the new church operating, 22 of the regional groups passed resolutions expressing their opposition to apartheid and 14 called for divestment of church money from organizations doing business in South Africa. In addition, five synods urged tough U.S. economic sanctions against the white minority-ruled African nation.
The divestment issue, as other denominations have discovered, is a tricky one for church leaders to deal with as pension board officials, where most church money is lodged, are legally obligated to exercise great prudence in moving money around.
At the ELCA church council meeting, top leaders of the new denomination, reflecting the sentiment of the synods, expressed some frustration with the pace of divestment and urged the church's Board of Pensions to withdraw investments in U.S. firms doing business with South Africa "as quickly as legally possible."
Pension board officials have said that when all factors were equal, the board would not invest in companies doing business in South Africa, but the board's fiduciary responsibility requires it "to exercise its responsibilities in a prudent manner for the sole purpose of the financial well-being of the members and beneficiaries."
Nor was it surprising that the question of homosexuality provoked the discussion it did among the synods. One of the first issues that drew attention to the newly formed denomination was the news concerning three homosexual seminarians and their qualification for ordination to the ministry.
During the synod sessions held earlier in the summer, 22 dealt with the question of homosexuality with most asking for further study of the topic.