MINNEAPOLIS When the more than 1,000 delegate votes were counted, those in favor of opening the ministry of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) "to gay and lesbian pastors and other professional workers living in committed relationships" won the day, according to a press release from the denomination.
The simple majority vote of 559 to 451 was the culmination of yearseven decadesof serious and oftentimes heated debate. And the result of the debate has left some individuals and churches reconsidering their continued membership within the 4.6 million-member denomination.
At a press conference following the vote, ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson said, "I am always concerned when I hear any indication of either congregations or clergy or both wondering about whether they can continue to be part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in light of these decisions."
Bishop Hanson continued: "Included in my concern is even a deeper concern for those who are at this point tonight. Are you willing to stay engaged with us in the conversation about how you can, with integrity, stay in this church body so that we might respect your bound conscience?"
The denomination will now draft language that will integrate the decisions made at the assembly into practice.
Some ELCA pastors were not surprised by the result of the vote. Dave Glesne, senior pastor of Redeemer Lutheran Church in Fridley, Minn., said, "As much as I was profoundly saddened by the vote, I cannot say that it was a surprise."
The Rev. Glesne believes the denomination has been heading this way for a long time. "There has been a trajectory set by ELCA leadership that had as its goal the ordination of non-celibate persons," he said. "When the commanding heights of the churchchurch-wide leaders, colleges, seminaries, synodical leadersare held by a persuasion in this direction, it was just a matter of time before the agenda would be adopted."
Roland Wells, pastor of St. Paul's Evangelical Lutheran Church in Minneapolis also was not surprised. He cited studies that demonstrate delegates to mainline church assemblies are "far left of the members in the pew," meaning the vote would most likely be a foregone conclusion based on the delegates who typically attend these assemblies.
What does the vote mean?
For those who supported the vote to allow those in same-gender relationships serve as pastors, the vote was a victory for justice and acceptance. In a press release from the ELCA, Bishop Gary Wollersheim of the Northern Illinois Synod, said, "It's a matter of justice, a matter of hospitality; it's what Jesus would have us do."
But others see this as a departure from biblical teaching. The Rev. Glesne said, "With this vote, the ELCA has departed from the teaching of the Bible as understood by Christians for 2,000 years. It has rejected the Bible's teaching on marriage and homosexual behavior. It has been willing to violate what it officially says it believes about the Bible as the 'source and norm' of the church's faith."
Tom Prichard, president of the Minnesota Family Council/Institute said in a press release, "Speaking as a Lutheran, with this vote the ELCA needs to change its name. It's no longer 'Lutheran' or 'Evangelical.' They have turned their back on the authority of the Bible, the foundation on which Martin Luther started the Reformation."
Leaving the denomination?
As many Evangelicals and others who maintain a strong view on the authority of Scripture come to grip with the vote, some are preparing to leave the denomination, talk that has circulated since the issue of gay clergy was first seriously debated. The number of churches and members who will ultimately leave the denomination will play out over the next few years.
For the Rev. Wells and St. Paul's Evangelical Lutheran Church, the decision has already been made. "Twenty years ago our congregation committed itself to leave the ELCA immediately if it officially sanctioned gay ordination," Wells said. "We will immediately begin to leave; I expect 100 percent support in the congregation."
The Rev. Glesne and Redeemer Lutheran Church believe that since the ELCA "radically changed its relationship with" the church, "we will be re-evaluating what our relationship will be with the ELCA."
Something new taking hold
Amidst the controversy and talk of leaving the ELCA, some feel God is moving His people. "I am sensing in the midst of the shaking that is taking place, that God is stirring and calling His faithful people to new alliances, coalitions and partnerships for the sake of the work of His Kingdom," the Rev. Glesne said.
And the Rev. Wells believes this might mark the birth of "true evangelical Lutheranism."
Some conservative church leaders have decided to align in a more formal manner to provide accountability and support. The birth of Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ offers churches an opportunity for dual affiliation.
The LCMC now numbers more than 200 congregations, some still affiliated with the ELCA. More are expected to join in the wake of the ELCA's recent decisions.
"Congregations are now making these decisions every month," said Jerald Borgie, Peñasquitos Lutheran Church in San Diego, Calif., adding that other churches in the region have sought his expertise in how they might proceed in leaving the denomination.
"There is great interest in our (LCMC's) October convention," Borgie said.
Although the defection numbers are small compared to the national numbers, the total number of LCMC member congregations are at 226 which include 36 states and 8 countries.
ACTION BOX: For more information on the vote and the ELCA, visit www.elca.org. For more information at Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ visit www.lcmc.net.
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