What should be the criteria by which this question is answered?
Both of these questions are important ones in the ELCA at this time. (They are important outside of the ELCA as well, but I am not dealing with that aspect of the issue in this blog.) The new Social Statement of the ELCA, "Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust," does not answer these questions. It tries, to a certain extent, to lay out the positions of those who hold to contradictory views on the first question. But, in the end, the social statement does not redefine marriage for those of us in the ELCA. Marriage is still defined as being between male and female. (The statement may not do this as strongly as I and some others would like. But it does not change this understanding of marriage.)
Now the Church Council of the ELCA is and will be struggling with the issue of how to define a "publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationship" for the various entities of the ELCA. Can the Council make these relationships analagous to marriage? Well, in short, no. The newly passed social statement won't allow that. That does create a problem. If these same sex relationships aren't analagous to marriage, than just what are they?
Unfortunately, the tendency has been to answer that last question in a very snarky manner. That has not served to help the church in the discussion and debate on these issues at all. And at the worst, it has continued to fuel the accusation that those who oppose the ordination of those who are in such same gender relationships (sometimes referred to as PALMS for short) are prejudiced against those who are gay or lesbian.
I don't believe PALMS relationships are analagous to marriage. I don't believe they should be given the status of marriage, in either the churchly or civil realm. But PALMS relationships are not going to go away. Of the ones that I have personal knowledge of, I can attest that they are indeed capable of being loving, committed, faithful, monogamous, and life-long. I would even be able to agree that such a committed relationship has more to recommend it than a life of changing partners and short-term sexual relationships. (And that is a problem for heterosexuals as well; I am not unaware of the log in the eyes of the straight community.) Those of us in the straight community in the church, including in the ELCA, have to take seriously the real commitment that exists between same gender partners in the gay and lesbian community, especially the community that exists in the church. And even as I and others in the ELCA reject the decisions of the August churchwide assembly, and live in confessional resistence to those and other decisions made by the ELCA on a variety of matters, we must look for a better way to deal with these questions.
It is not about my rights to have my conscience respected. It is how I might serve my brothers and sisters in Christ, for the sake of Christ. Even as I disagree. Even as I say "No" to the deeply held beliefs of those who I believe are in error.
It isn't just the Church Council that is struggling with this. It has to be all of us. In some ways it is the essential Lutheran question. What does this mean?