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CHICAGO (Reuters) - The largest U.S. Lutheran church group should consider steps that might enable people in same-sex relationships to become clergy, a task force recommended on Thursday.
The study group also approved of congregations finding ways to recognize gay unions by prayer and other means but did not suggest a formal marriage rite or blessing be established for them.
The matters covered in two reports released by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, or ELCA, are subject to review by church bishops and possible revisions by its Church Council before going to the membership convention for a vote in August.
The church, which has 5 million members in the United States and the Caribbean, has spent years studying the issue, which has become divisive in other Protestant faiths as well.
The 77 million-member worldwide Anglican Communion has been in turmoil since 2003 when its U.S. branch, the Episcopal Church, consecrated Gene Robinson of New Hampshire as the first bishop known to be in an openly gay relationship in over four centuries of Anglican history.
While gays may serve in the ELCA ministry, no pastor under the church's current policy may engage in sexual relations outside of marriage, and the church considers marriage as being between a man and a woman.
The task force set out four resolutions for possible approval, and said a "strong majority" of the 15-member clergy-lay group recommended them.
The first asks whether the church wants to find ways to recognize lifelong, monogamous same-sex relationships. It said that did not suggest an official rite to bless such unions, but that most task force members believed congregations could find ways to provide prayer and public affirmation for such unions.
If the recognition proposal is approved, a second resolution asks whether the church is "committed" to finding a way for people in such relationships to serve as clergy. A third step calls for mutual respect and support.
If those steps are approved, a fourth resolution would permit a "structured flexibility" allowing the appointment of clergy in monogamous lifelong same-sex relationships. But jurisdictions that object as a matter of conscience would not be obligated to have people in such relationships as clergy.
The report said most task force members "believe that it is undesirable and unrealistic to continue with existing policy.
"They feel this approach would fail to honor the conscience-bound lack of consensus in this church" and would shut out people in same-gender relationships who may be "best suited" for certain clerical posts.
Emily Eastwood, executive director of Lutherans Concerned/North America, a Lutheran gay and lesbian group, said her organization had "substantial agreement" with the proposals on some points.
But she said they "fall short rather dramatically" by not offering marriage or a rite of blessing for same-sex unions.
If passed as written, she said, it would be a "net gain" for gay rights because the prohibition against gay-partnered clergy would be lifted.
But allowing congregations, candidacy committees, synods and bishops who disagree to prohibit such clergy "may create institutionalized discrimination at the synod level, resulting in pockets where the existing prohibitions may remain in full force," she said.
Editing by Andrew Stern and Peter Cooney