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Bishop's Message

RSS By: Bishop Robert Alan Rimbo

The Rev. Dr. Robert Rimbo shares regular thoughts and reflections about our life together.

Opinion and Guidance with Regard to Same-Gender Marriages

Aug 01, 2011

Opinion and Guidance with Regard to Same-Gender Marriages

for Pastors and Congregations of the Metropolitan New York Synod


Lutherans are always caught in the middle, living with ambiguity and paradox, seeking to be faithful to God and to others. It is part of our character, even our vocation: we are both catholic and evangelical, proclaiming both law and gospel, always saints and sinners.


Because Lutherans do not hold marriage to be a sacrament, though there are, certainly, sacramental overtones, in thirty-five years of officiating at marriages, I have understood my role as a pastor to be, principally, an agent of the state. I believe it could be argued from liturgical history that Luther himself would agree: marriages at which Luther officiated were more often than not held outside of the church building and then celebrated in a service blessing God inside the church building.


I know that many in the Metropolitan New York Synod and in the entire Evangelical Lutheran Church in America are frankly rejoicing at the decision of our State legislature and governor to allow same-gender marriage (the word used by our State’s legal linguists to capture the idea). I honor the historic understanding that marriage is between a man and a woman, but now we are being guided by our State into a more expansive use of the term marriage.


I think the decision of our State is a just decision which is, in my opinion, pleasing to God. But I also know that many others in our synod and our denomination disagree with my opinion. I suspect that the vast majority of our members and our pastors are in the middle, trying to discern what to do in response to our State’s decision.


Our Synod Council will be discussing this in the next few months. Their consideration may or may not lead to a policy statement or guidelines. I sensed a need to offer my opinion and guidance from the stance of one who daily lives with ambiguity.


Our social statement, Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust, adopted at the 2009 Churchwide Assembly, and the subsequent revision of Vision and Expectations for Ordained Ministers in the ELCA which our Church Council adopted in April, 2010, are helpful to us all while we live in this paradox. I know that many pastors and congregations in our synod are supporting same-gender couples with prayer and praise as they seek to live out their lifelong commitments. Please also note that rostered leaders who wish to live in publicly accountable, life-long monogamous same-gender relationships have been told that public accountability includes compliance with the law of the State of residence.


Given these facts, I want to share some guidance.


I believe that pastors who are invited to officiate at the marriages of same-gender couples in the State of New York should do so. I also believe that pastors who cannot, following their bound conscience, officiate at same-gender marriages should not in any way be forced to do so.


I believe that if those marriages are to be held in the sanctuary of the church, it should be in compliance with the property use policies of the congregation. If it is determined that broader approval is needed, there should be consent from the elected leaders of the congregation. I do not believe that it is wise to involve the entire congregation in approving this by vote. Asking for a congregational vote would (1) question the pastor’s authority to marry (as articulated in Chapter 9 of the Model Constitution for Congregations and in other parallel constitutional provisions) and (2) possibly lead to divisions within the congregation over a matter which is in essence a pastoral decision.


Our worship books do not offer a rite specifically worded for a same-gender marriage; in fact, the language is very much that of husband and wife, man and woman. However, because of our Lutheran freedom to adapt liturgical resources and the fact that our worship books are recommended for our congregations as opposed to being imposed, I believe it is rather easy to make necessary adjustments.


Please note again: this is my opinion and not the official policy of the Metropolitan New York Synod or the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. As you consider my words, I ask you to remember that all of our decision-making as pastors and leaders of our congregations needs to be within the context of prayer for God’s continuing guidance, care for our local communities, sensitivity to the bound consciences of others, and loving compassion for all people.


The Rev. Dr. Robert Alan Rimbo


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