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By Erin Hemme Froslie, Published January 04 2003

Examining a difficult issue: Speaker will address homosexuality in church

The Rev. Merton Strommen wants to find the middle ground in an issue that threatens to divide mainline Protestant churches.

For him that means churches should warmly welcome those who are gay and lesbian, but stop short of blessing same-sex unions and ordaining non-celibate gay and lesbian people.

"I'm repelled by the treatment that has been given to homosexuals, the teasing, the judgmental stances," he says. "But I'm also repelled by the idea that it (homosexuality) should be equated with heterosexuality."

A pastor, research psychologist and founder of the Search Institute in Minneapolis, Strommen is one of the leading voices saying the church, particularly the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, shouldn't change its historical stance toward homosexuality.

ELCA policy requires ordained pastors to refrain from homosexual sexual relationships. There is no official policy on the blessing of same-sex relationships, but the Conference of Bishops has advised the church it doesn't approve of those ceremonies. The denomination is in the middle of a four-year study of the issue.

Strommen, who wrote "The Church & Homosexuality: Searching for a Middle Ground," will present and lead a discussion centering on his book Jan. 12 at Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in Moorhead.

"We really need a conversation about this topic and not just hearing from somebody on the far left or the far right," says the Rev. Dan Megorden, pastor at Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd. "There will be people who say Strommen has an agenda. But he has a proven background of a love for the church and a love for youth and families. I think he does want to encourage the conversation."

For the past decade, Strommen says, lay people in the church have heard only one point of view on the issue of homosexuality and that is the view that would support changing church policy.

It's a view also supported by other institutions, such as national mental health organizations, the media, courts and public schools, he says.

But before a final decision is reached, people need to hear information from all sides. For example, while gay and lesbian people are invited to speak at church conferences and official meetings, former gays and lesbians are not, he says.

As a pastor, Strommen says Scripture clearly states that homosexuality is not one of God's preferences. "The general consensus is that nowhere in Scripture does it account for homosexuality as a good thing," he says.

As a research psychologist, Strommen says there aren't conclusive studies that prove one is born gay and that sexual orientation can't be changed. Gays and lesbians don't choose their orientation, but there's also no credible research evidence that establishes homosexuality as an "innate, genetically determined aspect of the human body," he writes in his book.

"My experience is it is very difficult to publish any research that gives credence to re-orientation therapy or counseling," he says. "Studies have shown that some -- but not all -- who are dissatisfied with the homosexual lifestyle can change. We need to consider that."

In 1999, the president of the American Psychiatric Association said there was not scientific evidence that reparative therapy is effective in changing a person's sexual orientation. In his book, Strommen writes that position isn't shared by all in the association.

The church, Strommen says, should help gays and lesbians who are dissatisfied with a homosexual lifestyle, yet welcome those who are satisfied with it as is.

As a parish pastor, Megorden says mainline Protestants don't typically use words like "abomination" or "rejection" in reference to those who are gay or lesbian. There is, however, an unspoken "but."

"There's often a sense that gay and lesbian people aren't welcome in a parish," he says. "As a church we need to learn how to welcome those who are in different kinds of lifestyles."

The reverse side of that is the church also needs to be willing to articulate standards of morality even if those standards may not include everybody.

"We need to be willing to invite an honest conversation with various voices about this highly emotional issue," Megorden says. "It's very complicated.

"In the end, I trust the spirit will move among the people and touch the study, research and prayer we undertake."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Erin Hemme Froslie at (701) 241-5534

If you go

The Rev. Merton Strommen will speak at 4 p.m. Jan. 12 at Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd, 1500 6th St. S., Moorhead. The discussion will center on his book, "The Church and Homosexuality: Searching for a Middle Ground." A question-and-answer session will follow his hour presentation.

Strommen is a Lutheran pastor with more than 40 years of experience in ministry. He also is a research psychologist and founder of the Search Institute in Minneapolis.