Decision on Gay Clergy Shakes Unity of Lutheran Denomination

Sep 25th, 2009 | By | Category: Signs of the Times (click on article name)

Decision on Gay Clergy Shakes Unity of Lutheran Denomination

By Jacqueline L. Salmon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 25, 2009

Rev. Gerry Miller

Rev. Gerry Miller

St. Martin’s Evangelical Lutheran Church of Annapolis is a house of worship on the brink. It recently voted to explore leaving the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America because of the denomination’s decision last month to allow gay people in committed relationships to serve as clergy.

St. Martin’s pastor, the Rev. Gerald Miller, said he isn’t sure whether his church will leave the 4.6 million-member ELCA to join another Lutheran denomination.

“We are struggling,” said Miller, who wrote a heartfelt letter to his 1,000-member congregation about the issue of gay clergy last month. “We are really struggling.”

On Friday, he and 1,200 other conservative Lutherans from across the country will gather gather in an Indianapolis suburb, and many will be considering whether to walk away from the ELCA.

A similar controversy has strained the Episcopal Church, and whether gay people should be allowed to serve in church leadership roles is a question that also troubles other mainline Protestant denominations.

The ELCA has long allowed celibate gay people to serve, but its national assembly voted last month to let gay people in lifelong, monogamous relationships serve as clergy and professional lay leaders in congregations that want them.

For ELCA conservatives, the decision represented a breakdown in the Scriptural underpinnings of their Lutheran faith. The meeting outside Indianapolis was organized by a conservative umbrella group, Coalition for Reform, whose members say the new policy is heresy.

Attendees will be invited to form a “free-standing synod” (or diocese) that leaders say will carry out ministries separate from the ELCA and encourage congregations to direct their donations away from the ELCA. The ELCA, the largest Lutheran denomination in the United States, was formed 21 years ago by the merger of three Lutheran organizations.

“The reality is that many traditional congregations will leave, and many will stay,” said Ryan Schwarz, a District lay leader of the conservative effort. “We intend to care for both, developing structures that allow both those who leave and those who stay to do so with integrity and to remain in common mission together.”

The Rev. Mark S. Hanson, left, ELCA presiding bishop, and Cardinal Walter Kasper, The Vatican's chief ecumenical officer

The Rev. Mark S. Hanson, left, ELCA presiding bishop, and Cardinal Walter Kasper, The Vatican's chief ecumenical officer

On Wednesday, ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark S. Hanson wrote in a pastoral letter to church leaders that he is “disappointed” that some people are encouraging congregations and members to take actions that “will diminish our capacity for ministry.” He warned that such actions could affect the denomination’s ability to start churches, send out missionaries and rebuild communities after disasters.

Across the country, other gatherings are taking place as congregations grapple with the change.

In the Washington area, about 200 people, representing about 30 local churches, gathered Sept. 10 at Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in Damascus to discuss the vote and hear representatives of CORE.

Redeemer’s pastor, the Rev. Ray Scheck, who organized the meeting, said many believe the church departed from Scripture when it decided to allow sexually active gay people to serve in the ministry.

“A lot of people are concerned,” he said. “They’re saying ‘You left what we grew up with.’ ”

Conservatives who oppose the policy predict that it will hasten the downward membership spiral plaguing the ELCA and most other mainline denominations. In the ELCA, the number of baptized members has decreased 11 percent in the past 20 years.

Since 2001, the percentage of mainline Protestants in the U.S. population has shrunk from about 17 percent to 13 percent, according to the American Religious Identification Survey.

“It’s just going to accelerate the trend” in the ELCA, said the Rev. Mark Chavez, executive director of CORE. “Anybody with their eyes open can see that it’s going to be trouble.”

The Rev. Brian Hughes, lead pastor of St. John Evangelical Lutheran in Columbia, who opposes the new policy, predicted that one-third to one-half of ELCA members could leave. If conservative members depart and more-liberal members remain that could drive out those in the middle, he said.

“Once you disconnect from any kind of theological roots, it gets nutty pretty fast, and what’s to prevent it from getting nutty?” he said. “I think the middle will eventually drain out.”

But ELCA spokesman John Brooks said opponents and pundits are preaching a doomsday scenario too soon.

“What it means for the future of this church remains to be seen,” he said. “But at the moment, we are all members of the ELCA, and the presiding bishop has said on a number of occasions that we are not of one mind in this church body on this issue but that the ELCA is much more than a set of decisions made at a churchwide assembly.”

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  1. This subject is treated several times in the Bible. Perhaps the first scripture that comes to mind is I Cor. 6:9,10. Ephesians 5:1-6 expands on various vices with a special warning in the last verse, “Let no man deceive you with vain words: for because of these things cometh the wrath of God upon the children of disobedience.” Two more references are Rev. 21:7,8 and Rev. 22:14,15.

    What part of “No” don’t they understand?

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