Trinity has been discussing the issue since the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, or the ELCA, concluded with a vote at its 11th biennial Churchwide Assembly in August that openly gay and lesbian pastors living in “committed, lifelong and monogamous relationships” could serve in the clergy.
Before, clergy could be openly gay, but were required to remain celibate.
Heterosexual clergy are required to be celibate if single, monogamous if married.
While the debate over gay clergy and gay marriage in the church has been present in various religious denominations, it has especially become an issue in the Lutheran church as well as the Episcopal Church, which acted on the issue of gay clergy as well as gay marriage about a month before the ELCA’s decision. In July 2009, the Episcopal Church decided to lift a ban on ordaining gay bishops.
It is a divisive issue; 140 congregations have already separated themselves from the ELCA, out of more than 10,000 congregations across the country, said ELCA spokesman John Brooks.
The Southeastern Synod of the ELCA is comprised of 170 congregations in Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia and Tennessee. Out of that 170, six have terminated their affiliation with the ELCA. No Alabama congregations are among that six.
Bishop Julian Gordy, leader of the Southeastern Synod, said that the resolution the Lutheran Churchwide Assembly arrived at was a compromise. Some congregations were against gay clergy in committed relationship, while others were not.
“It became clear we had congregations who believed there were people who had gifts and a vocation who were denied serving in the way they had been called because they were in these lifelong relationships,” he explained.
The compromise was that gay clergy would be allowed to serve as long as their relationship was a committed one, while congregations could decide, as they could before, who would be the leaders of their individual congregations.
Trinity Lutheran, a congregation made up of about 80 members, wrestled with the decision to remove itself from the national denomination and instead align with the LCMC, Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ, a smaller Lutheran denomination made up of 456 congregations.
Trinity Lutheran took the first step of officially deciding with a congregational meeting on June 6, where the members were surveyed. A majority
indicated they were unhappy with the new policy of the ELCA and wanted to take action.
The next step was a church council meeting on Monday. The council, made up of Trinity Lutheran members, voted unanimously that instead of breaking off from the ELCA and aligning with another Lutheran denomination, the congregation would allow an opportunity for further dialog with the ELCA.
“Simply to say that we are going to leave really doesn’t address the problem,” said the pastor of Trinity Lutheran, Bert Oelschig. “So what the council decided is we are going to maintain what we believe within the synod.”
Trinity wants to give the ELCA a chance to point out in Scripture where homosexuality is biblical, Oelschig explained. If they cannot reach an agreement in about a year, he said, Trinity might again reconsider aligning themselves with another Lutheran denomination, most likely the LCMC.
Had Trinity’s council decided to move forward with separating from the ELCA, an official vote with a representative from the Southeastern Synod would be conducted. The vote must gather two-thirds of the members present, according to ELCA rules. A 90-day consultation period with the synod bishop would then occur, followed by a second vote.
Brooks said this period is meant to inform the congregations of the consequences of leaving the ELCA.
“If the congregation decides to go forward, they will conduct a second vote,” he said.
If a church does not go through this process, it risks losing its property, since the building is provided through the ELCA, although Gordy said this is not usually an issue.
Though Trinity has taken a firm stance, that is not to say it does not welcome homosexuals into the congregation, explained council president Mike Anderson, a lifelong member of the church.
“We have had members who are gay,” he said. “We have no problem with that. It’s not a matter of being gay; it’s a matter of accepting gay marriage as the norm. We are constrained, as we read the Bible, that that’s not the way God meant it to be.”
To Anderson, this is a matter of being understanding about man’s sinful nature versus the idea of deeming sinful nature as acceptable.
To Oelschig, standing up to the national denomination felt like a true Martin Luther moment, harkening back to 1517 when Luther posted his 95 Theses to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, Germany, questioning Catholic practices and eventually spurring the Protestant Reformation.
“My intent is not to break away from the church,” Oelschig said. “My intent is to state my belief within the organization. We would like the ELCA to show us in Scripture where they believe their social statements are in accord with the Word, and right now we don’t see a scriptural basis for the social statements, particularly in regards to sexuality.”
His desire is to engage in dialog with the ELCA.
“At least we need to feel some feedback, that we’re being heard, and that others are hearing the things that we believe.”
Oelschig indicated that, if anything, this will strengthen the congregation rather than weaken it.
“I think you’re going to see people realizing that this church is willing to take a stand and willing to adhere to what we believe, and that will strengthen the church and the membership,” he said. “I believe there are a lot of folks out there who are uneasy about the ELCA, but just walk away.”
ITALContract Brett Bralley at firstname.lastname@example.org.