The Open and Affirming Lutherans
L. DeAne Lagerquist
Lutherans don’t usually make national news, but they did on August 21 when
the Churchwide Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA),
meeting in Minneapolis, voted to permit partnered gay men and lesbians
to serve as pastors. “It makes ELCA the largest
denomination in the country to welcome gays into the pulpit without
restriction,” wrote Minneapolis Star Tribune Marlin Levison.
fact, the critical vote for the 4.6 million-member denomination had come on
August 19, when with just the necessary two-thirds the Assembly adopted a
34-page document entitled “Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust.” The product of
years of widespread, sometimes tense, deliberations, the document
established acceptance of “lifelong monogamous same-gender relationships” as
part of the church’s social teaching.
same day, a tornado rolled through town, destroying hospitality tables and
damaging the cross atop Central Lutheran adjacent to the Convention Center
where the Assembly was meeting—and bringing to life the first line of
Nicholas Grudtvig’s beloved Lutheran hymn: “Built on the Rock the church
doth stand/ Even when steeples are falling.”
supporter of the social statement typified the storm as a mighty wind of the
Holy Spirit and as a positive message,” wrote Betty Carlson, editor of
WordAlone Network, a Lutheran website critical of the ELCA’s liberal drift.
“Some WordAlone Network members heard a different message, a warning of
God’s anger at the ELCA in the wind.”
Whichever the case, what followed two days later was a series of votes that
at once committed the ELCA to embrace the new teaching and opened a loophole
for those who didn’t want to.
the one hand, the representatives directed the church “to eliminate
prohibition of rostered service [e.g., ordination] by members who are in
publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships.” On
the other, they asked that this be carried out in such a way as not to
impose upon “the bound consciences” of those who disagreed with this
administrative means for exercising this congregational prerogative to
refuse homosexual pastors was left to be worked out later. “This is a time,”
said Presiding Bishop Mark S. Hanson, “for thoughtful, engaged, prayerful,
body known for moderation and emotional restraint, feelings ran high. “The
resolutions drew tearful testimony from supporters and opponents, both of
whom cited the Bible in their arguments,” wrote Duke Helfand in his story
for the Los Angeles Times.
the Philadelphia Inquirer, David O’Reilly highlighted the
opposite poles. “I’m just stunned and grateful,” said Rev. Jay Wisner, who
serves University Lutheran Church of the Incarnation in West Philadelphia
with student ministries at University of Pennsylvania and Temple University.
“It breaks my heart,” said retired bishop Paul Spring, who serves as
president of the Lutheran Coalition of Renewal (CORE), a group that opposed
the change—and which announced in November that it would move toward
formation of an alternative church body.
the headline on Julia Duin’s Washington Times story put it:
“Lutherans to allow gay clergy, couples: Doctrine change may cleave
road to Minneapolis was long and filled with the kind of deliberation
typical of mainline Protestantism in general and the ELCA in particular.
Indeed, discussion, debate, and deadlock on issues of sexuality had occupied
the ELCA almost since it was formed through the merger of three pre-existing
Lutheran denominations in 1988.
teaching statements are crafted through a participatory process as the
church wrestles with the Bible and its traditions to discern God’s purposes
and to serve its neighbors. Rather than dictating moral standards, this
model encourages members’ theological engagement, reflection upon their
involvement in the church’s mission, and ethical activity in public arenas.
the early 1990s, the Conference of Bishops and the ELCA Church Council (its
governing board) issued statements on sexuality, congregations held
face-to-face discussions, and debates took place in person, in print, and
on-line. Grassroots organizations promoted competing visions of faithfulness
to the church’s mission.
Altogether, the first draft of a statement on sexuality elicited no fewer
than 20,000 responses resulting in a substantially revised draft that the
Christian Century characterized in November 1994 as “stress[ing] the
traditional themes of fidelity in marriage and sexual abstinence outside of
marriage and extol[ing] the essential goodness of human sexuality.” Although
the intention was to present it to the 1995 Assembly, action was postponed
because of intense differences over homosexuality.
the time, the policy of the church was that homosexuals who promised to be
celibate could be ordained and called to serve as pastors; those who would
not, could not. Non-celibate gay and lesbian pastors who came out could be
removed from the roster. If their congregations did not get rid of them,
they themselves could be expelled from the denomination. In line with that
policy, in 1995 the ELCA expelled St. Francis Lutheran of San Francisco for
calling and ordaining two lesbians, Ruth Frost and Phyllis Zillhart.
spite of this, other congregations followed St. Francis’ lead. Technically,
they violated the requirement that congregations call pastors certified by
the ELCA. In these cases, the pastors were not certified because of their
sexuality (rather than, for example, heresy or inadequate skills).
1996, the ELCA Church Council adopted “Sexuality: Some Common Convictions”—a
provisional document that, according to its preface, reflected both “the
continuing ferment in our society regarding sexuality and sexual
behavior…[and the] discussion and debate that has occurred throughout the
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America during the past few years in response
to three study documents on sexuality.”
Through the late 1990s, the denomination continued to confront various
issues related to human sexuality. In 1999, the Assembly received
“Congregational Ministry with Gay and Lesbian People,” a report from the
Division for Outreach, but declined to propose any policy changes.
preparation for the 2001 Assembly, the Division for Ministry catalogued ELCA
efforts to engage the issues, listing “four types of study materials the
church has produced, 10 instances of ongoing formal conversations in which
the church was engaged, three special events it sponsored, seven related
activities or services it provided, and several other activities that did
not fall into those categories.”
the paper flew, ferment continued on the ground. In April of that year,
Bishop Charles H. Maahs of the Central States Synod censured Abiding Peace
Lutheran in Kansas City for “willfully violating” the ELCA constitution by
calling a lesbian, Donna Simon, not on the official clergy roster. However,
Maahs did not expel the church from the denomination.
primary reason for this is that the issue of homosexuality continues to be
under discussion in the ELCA, and the Central States Synod can make a
contribution to this discussion,” he said. “I have met regularly with Pastor
Simon and the leadership of Abiding Peace and have experienced them as
people of good faith. While they steadfastly believe that the ELCA’s
official policy of excluding gays and lesbians from ordained ministry is
wrong, they have demonstrated an ability for open and respectful dialogue
without resorting to coercive and inflammatory tactics which all too often
damage the church.”
Meanwhile, Bishop Paul W. Egertson of the Southern California West Synod
participated in ordaining a lesbian, Anita Hill, at St. Paul Reformation
Lutheran, St. Paul, Minnesota. In May, Egertson announced his voluntary
was at the 2001 Assembly in Indianapolis that the processes of study,
dialogue, and discernment that culminated in the Minneapolis decisions were
initiated. The Assembly requested a study of homosexuality to be presented
in 2005 along with a proposal concerning ordination and a comprehensive
social statement on sexuality.
Early in 2002, the Rev. James M. Childs, Jr. was appointed to direct the
studies, a task force was appointed, and a budget of $1.15 million approved
for an anticipated six-year project. The task force proceeded to consult
with experts, hear from advocacy groups, and prepare three study documents
for congregational use.
Meeting in Orlando in 2005, the Assembly defeated a proposal to authorize
ordination of non-celibate homosexuals by a vote of 503 to 490—well short of
the necessary two-thirds majority. Nonetheless, development of the sexuality
the 2007 Chicago Assembly, representatives encouraged church leaders to
exercise restraint in disciplining congregations and pastors for
non-compliance related to matters of sexuality while the social teaching
statement was still in process for presentation two years later. In April of
2009, “Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust” was made public, and quickly drew
support from the denomination’s future leaders.
May, some 120 seminarians signed an open letter urging their bishops to
support the proposed actions. At their convention in July, Lutheran Youth
Organization leaders endorsed the social statement that would be approved in
Evidence of support for the new regime came in from various quarters. A
September 9 ELCA News Service release reported that Rev. Bradley E.
Schmeling had been receiving “letters and stories of Lutherans returning to
church after many years away.” (Schmeling was removed from the clergy roster
in 2007 after publicly acknowledging his committed relationship with another
Former presiding bishops Herbert Chilstrom and H. George Anderson wrote a
letter asking for prayers and financial support that Lutherans Concerned (a
group that had advocated for the changes) posted as a fund-raising appeal on
troubled world needs the Good News of the Gospel and all that flows from
it….We are absolutely certain that we can continue to live together and
serve as one family in the ELCA.
“This is why we are calling on you, our brothers and sisters in the faith,
to pray daily for the unity of this church and its mission. We ask you to
join us as we step up our support of the ELCA with a generous gift.”
response, Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Minneapolis decided in November to
increase its annual contribution. Similarly, St. Olaf College Student
Congregation quietly added a budget line-item for “benevolence giving” to
the other side, blog posts and other on-line reaction to news stories
revealed opponents’ conviction that the ELCA had abandoned Bible teaching.
The conservative website Lutheran News asked readers to register their views
by completing the statement, “The ELCA’s decision on Gay clergy in committed
relationships is...” As of January 1, 63 percent of the 128 respondents had
marked “biblically incorrect.”
have come to believe that possibly two of the main reasons this vote passed
within the ELCA this past summer is because people either don’t read and
study the bible or don’t believe it is the inspired word of God,” commented
Mad and About to Leave. “Sure, there is no perfect church this side of
heaven because we are imperfect people. But it’s written in black and white
with no wiggle room.”
2010 began, formation of an alternative organization by traditionalists
withdraw from the ELCA, a congregation must take two votes, 90 days apart,
each of which must receive a two-thirds majority. On January 9, Presiding
Bishop Hanson told the Austin (Minn.) Post-Bulletin that just
150 of the denomination’s 10,400 congregations had held initial votes on
whether to leave, and of those, some 30 had failed to achieve sufficient
votes to proceed to a second vote.
certain departure will be the Community Church of Joy, a Lutheran
mega-church in Glendale, Arizona, over 90 percent of whose members voted to
withdraw from the denomination in June. On December 20, Pastor Walt
Kallestad explained to the Washington Times’ Wayne Anderson that the
decision had not only been a reaction to the proposed sexuality statement:
started the process before the convention because it was clear that the
vision, values and direction of the ELCA was totally opposite of where we
believe that the New Testament church was destined and designed to
be….Either the Bible is the final authority or it is not.”
Community Church of Joy will join Lutheran Congregations in Mission for
Christ (LCMC), a traditionalist “association of congregations” established
in 2000 to counteract what it considered liberal tendency in the ELCA,
including the denomination’s moves toward full communion with the Episcopal
Church. It is likely that some congregations will opt for dual membership in
the ELCA and LCMC.
its part, CORE met in September and began planning for both a new church
body and a free-standing synod within the ELCA. In its news releases,
web-page, and brochures, the organization emphasizes both the historic
significance of the “reconfiguration” of American Lutheranism and its own
commitment to maintaining relationships with those remaining in the ELCA.
model of a free-standing synod harks back to 1888, when the (then largely
German-speaking) Missouri Synod organized an English District to link
Anglophone congregations across the nation. (To be sure, the English
District, which currently comprises 158 congregations, was known as the
Missouri Synod’s progressive wing.)
Despite CORE’s stated desire for cooperation and the Assembly’s commitment
to “respect for the bound consciences of all,” accusations of bad faith,
ill-will, and undue pressure are being made. A conservative website called
The Road to Christian Freedom has posted a guide to “Games Bishops Play.” On
December 20, the Washington Times quoted Pastor Mark Gehrke as saying
that there are ELCA pastors who are “too frightened to openly criticize the
with the split in the Anglican community, worldwide reaction to the ECLA’s
move has divided on north-south lines. African churches have expressed
strong disapproval, while in Scandinavia, there had been hardly a ripple.
Indeed, the Swedish church consecrated Eva Brunne, a lesbian, as bishop of
Stockholm in November. Speaking with Ecumenical News International’s Peter
Kenny on November 17, the Archbishop Anders Wejryd recalled decades of
discussion prior to the Church of Sweden’s own endorsement of same-sex
marriage in 2009.
“Everyone has to decide for themselves,” Wejryd said. “It is so important
that all these issues are handled very seriously in your own cultural
context. I think things like this should not be pushed upon someone else.”
point of view was not, however, shared by Archbishop Walter Obare of Kenya,
who told Kenny, “We condemn in the strongest terms possible this unfortunate
and anti-scriptural development in a church body that bears the name of the
great reformer, Dr. Martin Luther.”
is the significance of the ELCA’s long and relatively untumultuous journey
to full equality for gays and lesbians?
one, it cements the denomination’s move from ethnic periphery to the center
of the American Protestant mainline. With respect to homosexuality, it now
stands with the Episcopalians and the United Church of Christ, even as the
United Methodists and the members of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.
continue to struggle with the issue. A church identified more with the
middle-of-the-road than the left, it appears to have demonstrated that even
the most contentious question can be settled by careful deliberation.
be sure, some defections are likely, but the reluctance of the ELCA’s
traditionalists to sever their ties is striking. By one important measure,
the Lutherans have less to fight over than the much more contentious
Episcopalians: An ELCA congregation that chooses to depart does not have to
fight to keep its buildings. This makes the desire to stay within the fold
all the more noteworthy.
Addressing the 2009 ELCA Assembly after its votes, Zimbabwean Ishmael Noko,
General Secretary of the Lutheran World Federation, made the point:
“They understood that the Church is the Body of Christ, a creature of the
gospel and, therefore, not ours to dismember. They have therefore left
behind for us, from this city of Minneapolis, a legacy for us to stay