ELCA pastor to appeal removal ruling

by Erin Roach - BP News |

Discipline committee urges church to remove gay celibacy policy
By Erin Roach — BP News

ATLANTA, Ga. — An Atlanta pastor who faces removal from the pulpit because of his involvement in a same-sex relationship is appealing the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America jury ruling that is forcing him to leave.

The Rev. Bradley E. Schmeling, pastor of St. John's Lutheran Church, was tried before an ELCA discipline committee Jan. 18 to 24. Seven of the 12 jurors found Schmeling to be in violation of church policy, which only permits the service of gay clergy who are celibate. The jurors, all clerics, ordered that Schmeling be removed no later than Aug. 15.

Although the church jury ruled against the pastor, it clearly indicated its displeasure at the policy and suggested that the denomination, which holds its biennial churchwide assembly Aug. 6 to 11 in Chicago, remove the celibacy restriction. The deadline for Schmeling's dismissal was set after that meeting to give church leaders an opportunity to change the policy.

Schmeling, in a telephone interview with the ELCA News Service after the decision, said he is encouraged that the committee asked the churchwide assembly to change policy.

"(I'm) grateful that the committee heard my story," he said. "They listened, took seriously the ministry of St. John, and I was delighted they affirmed my ministry," he said.    

According to ELCA News Service, the appeal would be considered by a 12-member Churchwide Committee on Appeals. The decision of the appeals committee, split evenly among lay members and clergy, is final. 

The Rev. Ronald B. Warren, bishop of the ELCA Southeastern Synod, Atlanta, filed charges against Schmeling in August after the pastor disclosed his sexual relationship to him. Warren said he was forced to seek denominational discipline after Schmeling refused to resign his post.

"The decision to seek Pastor Schmeling's removal from the ministry of this church was difficult because of my deep respect for the pastor and the congregation at St. John," Warren said in a statement released after the ruling. "But the policy of this church is clear, and it was my responsibility as bishop of this synod, to enforce the established standards of this church."

In its January decision, the discipline committee took particular exception to the phrase, "Practicing homosexual persons are precluded from the ordained ministry of this church," suggesting the regulations "are at least bad policy, and may very well violate the constitution and bylaws of this church." 

According to ELCA officials, the committee reported that if it was relieved of that policy requirement, it would find "almost unanimously that Pastor Schmeling is not engaged in conduct that is incompatible with the ministerial office, and would find with near unanimity that no discipline of any sort should be imposed against him."    

In addition, the committee recommended that if the policy is changed the ELCA also revise its reinstatement rules to permit immediate reinstatement of those who have resigned or have been removed from the rosters of the ELCA "solely because they entered into a loving, lifelong partnership with another person of the same sex that is mutual, chaste and faithful."

Published, April 2007