MINNEAPOLIS — The nation's largest Lutheran denomination took openly gay clergy more fully into its fold Friday, as leaders of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America voted to lift a ban that prohibited sexually active gays and lesbians from serving as ministers.
Under the new policy, individual ELCA congregations will be allowed to hire homosexuals as clergy as long as they are in a committed relationships. Until now, gays and lesbians had to remain celibate to serve as clergy.
The change passed with the support of 68 percent of about 1,000 delegates at the ELCA's national assembly. It makes the group, with about 4.7 million members in the U.S., one of the largest U.S. Christian denominations yet to take a more gay-friendly stance.
"I have seen these same-gender relationships function in the same way as heterosexual relationships — bringing joy and blessings as well as trials and hardships," the Rev. Leslie Williamson, associate pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church in Des Plaines, Ill., said during the hours of debate. "The same-gender couples I know live in love and faithfulness and are called to proclaim the word of God as are all of us."
Conservative congregations will not be forced to hire gay clergy. Nevertheless, opponents of the shift decried what they saw as straying from clear Scriptural direction, and warned it could lead some congregations and individual churchgoers to split off from the ELCA.
"This will cause an ever greater loss in members and finances. I can't believe the church I loved and served for 40 years can condone what God condemns," said the Rev. Richard Mahan, pastor at St. Timothy Lutheran Church in Charleston, W.Va. "Nowhere in Scripture does it say homosexuality and same-sex marriage is acceptable to God. Instead, it says it is immoral and perverted."
David Keck, a delegate from the Southern Ohio Synod, said he feared that by embracing partnered gays as clergy that the ELCA was heading down a road that would ultimately lead to "the blessing of same-sex unions as the policy of this church," he said.
Mahan said he believed a majority of his congregation would want to now break off from the ELCA.
Other leaders indicated they might leave as well, but ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson said after the vote he was committed to keeping opponents of the new policy within the ELCA fold.
"I'm pleading with people to stay in there with us in this conversation," Hanson said.
In September, Lutheran CORE — the group that led the fight against the changes — is holding a convention in Indianapolis to discuss the next steps. It also encouraged ELCA members and congregations to direct finances away from ELCA churchwide organizations and toward "faithful ministries within and outside of the ELCA."
Other Christian denominations in the United States have struggled to remain united in the face of such debates. In 2003, the 2 million-member Episcopal Church of the United States consecrated its first openly gay bishop, a move that alienated American Episcopalians from its worldwide parent church, the Anglican Communion. The divide has led to the formation of the more conservative Anglican Church in North America, which claims 100,000 members.
But ELCA supporters of its change said failure to ratify it ran just as great a risk of alienating large portions of the membership, particularly those from younger generations.
The Rev. Katrina Foster, pastor at Fordham Evangelical Lutheran Church in the Bronx, said Lutherans heard similar warnings about flouting Scripture when they made past changes that are now seen as successful — chiefly, the ordination of women.
"We can learn not to define ourselves by negation," said Foster, who is a lesbian. "By not only saying what we are against, which always seems to be the same — against gay people. We should be against poverty. I wish we were as zealous about that."
Tim Mumm, a gay man and an assembly delegate from Whitewater, Wis., said the Scripture that guides opponents of the more liberal policy was written by mortals, at a much earlier time, and doesn't reflect what many Christians now believe.
"I believe for me to marry a woman would be wrong — even sinful," Mumm said.
Some ELCA congregations had already been flouting the ban on noncelibate gay priests by hiring pastors in gay relationships. Some synods looked the other way, while others removed such priests from their rosters.
It was such divisions and inconsistencies in enforcement that an ELCA task force aimed to finesse when it began several years ago to draw up the ministry recommendations and a broader social statement on human sexuality, which passed earlier this week.
Under the new policy, heterosexual clergy and professional lay workers will still have to abstain from sex outside marriage. The proposed change would cover those in "lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships."