FIRST THE EPISCOPAL CHURCH, NOW THE EVANGELICAL LUTHERANS?

August 18, 2009

In the few very liberal Christian denominations, like the United Church of Christ in the U.S. and the United Church of Canada in Canada, there is relatively little discussion of equal rights for gays and lesbians, of the blessing or marriage of same-sex couples, and of the ordination of candidates for the ministry who are actively living in same-sex relationships. These matters have largely been settled in favor of equality for all.

There is also little discussion in Fundamentalist and other Evangelical denominations, because the topics have yet to be engaged by pro-equality and anti-equality groups.

It is the mainline-liberal denominations, like the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) where debate is now at a fever pitch, pitting the denomination's liberals and conservatives against each other in an effort to reach a consensus.

The only potential compromise appears to be a form of local option in which individual synods or congregations decide whether or not to bless same-sex relationships and/or consider gay candidates for ordination who are in committed same-sex relationship. This compromise currently appears to be unacceptable to both sides. There is a some discussion that a schism in the denomination is possible.

In an August 5 news release, the results of a national survey taken recently show that a majority of clergy of the ELCA -- 54 percent -- support ordination "with no special requirements" for people who are gay or lesbian.

The Clergy Voices Survey was reported in May 2009 by Public Religion Research, an independent public opinion research organization that provides "research-based" information and advice on religion, values and public policy.  Public Religion Research is based in Washington D.C.

The Rev. Dave Glesne stood before the members of Redeemer Lutheran Church a few weeks ago and told them there might be some painful decisions in the near future. Indeed, the future is here!

Glesne is against letting people in same-sex relationships serve as pastors of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, and he says his congregation is behind him. They're worried this suburban Minneapolis church could find itself on the losing side as leaders of the nation's largest Lutheran denomination vote on whether to take that step at their biennial national convention, which starts Monday in Minneapolis.

Avoiding such divisions was a main goal of an ELCA task force that prepared recommendations for debate by the 1,045 voting members at the convention. One is a revision of ministry standards that would let individual congregations employ gay and lesbian people in committed relationships as clergy. The other is a broader statement on human sexuality, a 34-page document that tries to craft a theological framework for differing views on homosexuality _ but which critics say would simply liberalize the ELCA's attitudes.

At 4.7 million members and about 10,000 congregations in the United States, the ELCA would be one of the largest U.S. Christian denominations yet to take a more gay-friendly stance on clergy.

In 2003, the 2 million-member Episcopal Church of the United States consecrated its first openly gay bishop, deepening a long-running rift in the worldwide Anglican Communion about homosexuality and Scripture.

Last month in Anaheim, Calif., the Episcopal General Convention declared gays and lesbians in committed relationships eligible for "any ordained ministry." The move came despite Anglican world leaders' calls for a clear moratorium on consecrating another gay bishop.

The divide in the Episcopal Church in the last few years has led to the formation of the more conservative Anglican Church in North America, which claims 100,000 members.

Headed into next week's convention, ELCA leaders on both sides of the issue wonder if a similar split could be in store for them.

The Presiding Bishop, Mark Hanson said that we wouldn't predict what the outcome would be but noted that he was not going to deny that he had major concerns about the implications and whether the denomination would come out of the gathering unscathed.

In recent synod votes on the proposed change, thirty-four synods approved resolutions supporting the change and 12 called for its rejection. The votes put synods on record for advocating for a position, which ultimately will be decided by voting members at the national assembly.

Past efforts to change the ELCA's policy on gay clergy have failed. ELCA churches can already take on celibate gay and lesbian pastors, a policy in place since the early 1990s. Some churches are already testing the denomination's position by taking on pastors who are open about their gay relationships.

The proposed changes are designed to avoid divisions by letting congregations decide whether to have pastors in same-sex relationships.

The Rev. Bradley Schmeling, an Atlanta pastor who became the focus of a church disciplinary hearing in 2007 after he acknowledged being in a relationship with a man, said he's aware of the argument that the ELCA would lose some members and churches by liberalizing policy.

He believes though that ELCA is losing people now who see that exclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals by the church is unloving and hypocritical. Schmeling, who was removed from the ELCA clergy roster but his congregation kept him on as pastor.

Few on either side of the debate want to predict how many members and churches the ELCA might lose if it moves toward greater acceptance of clergy in gay relationships. With the topic of gay clergy comes certain division - as with the case of the Episcopal churches. 

Down the road, when gay marriages are forced upon the forty-four states which do not allow for them, churches and denominations will have to decide whether they will allow same-sex marriages to be performed within the buildings or on their property.  Along with that comes the decision of having pastors who will perform them.

We are steadily going down that road leading toward chaotic times for Christianity as a whole.

We believe that the Constitution of the United States speaks for itself. There is no need to rewrite, change or reinterpret it to suit the fancies of special interest groups or protected classes.