So, what might the ELCA Church Council's determination mean?
On one hand, it seems perfectly fair. After all, the standards for ELCA ministers were established by the ELCA Church Council by an action that only required its majority vote. Thus, as I have often reminded folks over the last several years, the ELCA could at any time change them by a simple majority already! As a matter of parliamentary procedure it's no big
deal that the 2009 Churchwide Assembly could also change them by a simple majority.
And for those who recall that the 2005 Churchwide Assembly needed a 2/3rds majority to accept the Task Force's recommendations to change the standards to formally permit openly practicing gay to serve as pastors or other rostered leaders, that was accomplished by some pre-assembly parliamentary sleight-of-hand engineered by the Office of the Presiding Bishop -- a wise move on Bishop Hanson's part to hold off splitting the ELCA over this issue at the time.
On the other hand, the Churchwide Assembly could vote 99.44% to change and .56% to hold the line, and any rule change -- while it would certainly happen -- would still be illegitimate. Why do I say that?
1) The Task Force was unable to present any theological justification for permitting actively gay clergy. This after having all of the resources of the ELCA and her theologians and other scholars available to the Task Force which was tasked to do precisely that -- make a theological case for its recommendations. Of course, this presupposes that a Lutheran church would make important decisions only after considering Lutheran theology.
2) Some things simply aren't up for a vote. Call me old fashioned, but the witness of the Old and New Testaments outvotes a 2/3rds majority of the Church Council, or the entire CWA, or even of all the voting members of the ELCA.
Furthermore, I still remember standing on the floor as a volunteer at the 2001 Churchwide Assembly in Indianapolis (where the current sexuality study was instigated) wanting to scream to then-Presiding Bishop Anderson, "Rule it out of order!" Why? Because even if this were a matter subject to a vote, an ELCA Churchwide Assembly -- which is mandated to be at least 60% lay -- has no confessional authority to change the teaching of the church. And this is changing the church's teaching. But even a theologian as astute as H. George Anderson was caught by the democratic ideology that, for several generations, has been undermining our teaching of the Faith.
Finally, what this means is that, unlike in 2005 or 2007, Presiding Bishop Hanson (who didn't openly support the ordination of practicing gays until the 2006 Hein-Fry lectures) is now prepared to let the chips fall where may. It is more important that the ELCA be opened to the so-called "full inclusion" of gay and lesbian persons (by enabling those in same-sex relationships to formally serve under call), even by a slim majority, than to keep the ELCA together as one church. This Church Council action tells me that he is now willing to risk losing a lot of churches and pastors over this.
There is still the chance that saner heads will prevail. Synod Councils, Synod Assemblies, and the Conference of Bishops (or, at the very least, several Synod Bishops) could stand up and call for making this a 2/3rds vote, as could the Assembly itself. Lutheran CORE and other faithful ELCAers have our work cut out for us, because for the moment, the ELCA's leadership is now clearly committed to advancing the GLBTQ agenda rather than building the church.