Meeting yesterday, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America [ELCA] turned back a proposal that would have allowed non-celibate homosexuals to serve as ministers. As The New York Times reports today, In an indication of the deep split over homosexuality in the church, which with five million members is the nation’s largest Lutheran denomination, the vote on gay clergy members at the church’s assembly in Orlando, Fla., divided almost evenly, with 49 percent in favor to 51 percent opposed. To pass, the measure required a two-thirds majority. The assembly also rejected a measure that would have allowed churches to bless same-sex unions.

Nevertheless, these votes leave a number of important questions unanswered. In one sense, it is hard to see just how determinative these votes are. Consider these statements from the ELCA News Service:

The 2005 Churchwide Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) affirmed pastoral care for all people including people who are gay or lesbian, and continued to encourage the church to welcome gay and lesbian people into its life. In a related action, the assembly rejected a proposal that would have allowed the church, under special circumstances, to ordain gay and lesbian candidates for ministry who are involved in lifelong, committed same-sex relationships.

While the assembly did not create formal rites for blessing couples in same-sex relationships, it entrusted pastoral care to individual pastors and congregations. ELCA church leaders said that the actions affirmed the ELCA’s current standards for ministry and reaffirmed the pastoral guidance of a 1993 pastoral letter issued by the ELCA Conference of Bishops.

It appears that the denomination avoided taking a clear stand either way. When its own press service opens its news release with statements like those above, there is no way to celebrate these actions as affirming a biblical understanding of sexuality or marriage. The denomination rejected “formal rites for blessing couples in same-sex relationships,” but left churches virtually free to come up with their own.

ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson was pleased. As the assembly’s press statement reports: As the assembly deliberation began, the Rev. Mark S. Hanson, presiding bishop of the ELCA, said that the church has “done this work well. We’ve listened to each other. We’ve learned from each other. We’ve prayed for and with each other. And I believe we’ve journeyed together faithfully” in the ELCA’s three-year study of the questions related to homosexuality.

On the other hand, here’s how The Washington Post reports on the meeting: All the proposals — the product of three years’ work by a special church task force — were meant as a compromise that would satisfy both those who support gay clergy and those who regard gay sex as sinful. The measures, however, drew immediate opposition from Lutherans on both sides of the debate. Conservatives said the ordination proposal would have effectively overturned prohibitions against non-celibate gays in the Lutheran ministry. Advocates for gays were not satisfied, either. They said the measure would have created a second-class roster for homosexual clergy in the church.

Here’s my nomination for the most bizarre statement reported out of the meeting [from The Washington Post]: But the Rev. G. Scott Cady of the New England Synod said rejecting gays who feel a call to ministry was tantamount to questioning the will of God. “We have vacant pulpits and altars in congregations all over this country,” Cady said. “The Holy Spirit has said, ‘All right, here they are. Here they are.’ Are we going to now say, ‘Thanks, Holy Spirit, but we prefer something else’?” Just imagine transferring that logic to any other question in the church.

Once again, the ELCA has decided not to decide — or at least to avoid making any decision that clearly affirms a biblical concept of marriage, sexuality, and ministry. The denomination did adopt a “unity” resolution that called on ELCA churches to remain united, despite “widely differing beliefs on homosexuality.” [See ELCA News Service Release] What kind of unity remains after a biblical consensus is gone?