Evangelical Lutheran Church in America delegates meeting in Minneapolis voted 559-441 Friday to allow churches to hire gay pastors in relationships.
The nation’s largest Lutheran denomination previously allowed pastors to be gay, but only if celibate.
Delegates also approved a resolution which will allow but not require pastors to bless same-sex unions.
The moves were welcomed by advocates of full gay inclusion, but traditionalists were dismayed. Many traditionalists speaking at the Churchwide Assembly predicted it would split the denomination, much as more conservative Episcopal congregations have left that denomination after the installation of a gay bishop.
The Rev. Bradley Schmeling of St. John’s Lutheran in Druid Hills and Bob Gibeling of Atlanta have lobbied for the changes.
Schmeling is gay, has been in a relationship and the denomination removed him from the list of approved pastors in 2007. However, the church kept him as pastor and the denomination took no action against St. John’s.
“This is certainly an important step in the process that I’ve been looking forward to and praying for for a very long time,” he said from Minneapolis.
He said he was gratified by the removal of barriers to full inclusion, but it will take time to work out the details of how he and others who have been defrocked will be brought back into the churches.
“The vote doesn’t automatically mean I’ll be back on the clergy roster,” he said.
The wording of the resolution will not require a pastor to perform the blessing, but will allow congregations comfortable doing so to act. The denomination has yet to work out details of how the ceremony must take place.
Gibeling said: “I’ve been a life-long member at Redeemer Lutheran Church, and I was never comfortable asking my church to bless my relationship. This offers great hope to me that when I find a future life-long partner, my own beloved congregation will want to bless that union.”
Opponents of the measures called for traditional congregations to withhold funds from the church-wide ministries and come together for a meeting in September.
“I am saddened that a Lutheran church that was founded on a firm commitment to the Bible has come to the point that the ELCA would vote to reject the Bible’s teaching on marriage and homosexual behavior. I breaks my heart,” said the Rev. Paul Spring of Pennsylvania.
He helps lead a group called Lutheran CORE, which worked to defeat the measures.
The United Church of Christ and Episcopal Church have accepted gay pastors in recent years. Other mainline and evangelical Protestant churches, including conservative Lutherans such as the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, do not affirm gay leaders or relationships.
Lutheran Core members said it was not their intent to leave the ELCA, but Spring said in a press release, “We intend to gather the largest possible body of faithful Lutherans so that we might collectively plan a united common future. For that reason it is important that congregations and individuals not make hasty decisions about their future in the ELCA.”
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