Saturday, 29 August 2009

Catholic Star Herald: Protestants struggling with a divisive issue

As you know, last month I reported on the breaking news that Episcopalians declared gays and lesbians eligible for “any ordained ministry” in their church at their general convention risking their place in the world Anglican fellowship. Just last week the nation’s largest Lutheran denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), at their Churchwide Assembly in Minneapolis, Minn., reversed a long-standing ban on the appointment of non-celibate gays to the clergy, becoming the second major Christian denomination in a month to allow gay clergy.

The ELCA has become the third mainline Protestant denomination and the largest one to eliminate bans on gays and lesbians serving as clergy. Voting 559-451 last week, delegates from the Lutheran Church approved a resolution that will allow gay clergy to serve in the denomination. The margin was so close that Bishop Mark Hanson, the ELCA presiding bishop, who presided over the vote, hesitated before announcing the outcome. Rules required the social statement to pass by a two-thirds vote; the final result was 66.67 percent.

“I thought it was going to be close, but I doubted very much that it would come out at exactly two-thirds,” said Rev. Peter Strommen, chairman of the task force that drew up the social statement.

Under the new policy, individual ELCA congregations will be allowed to hire homosexuals as pastors as long as they are in a committed relationship. Prior to the acceptance of this resolution gays and lesbians were required to remain celibate in order to serve as clergy. Some Protestant theologians and church analysts said the votes in both the Episcopal and Lutheran churches could influence other Protestant denominations, including Presbyterian and United Methodists, as they are already debating homosexuality and the understanding of it in light of biblical interpretation.

Some within the ELCA who disagree with the national body’s decision are now predicting a deep divide in the church, with people defecting to other denominations or perhaps even creating a new church body. The Rev. Mark Chavez, of Landisville, Pa., director of Lutheran CORE, a conservative group within the ELCA, believes the leaders of his church made a decision in direct contradiction of the Bible.

“I’m not leaving,” Chavez said, promising an effort to keep the church from moving even further toward what he sees as an embrace of behavior condemned by the Bible. CORE will hold a convention in Indianapolis in September to review its next steps, but Chavez said he thinks some ELCA clergy, congregations and individual members will walk away from the denomination. Some religious scholars from Protestant denominations worry that rifts over homosexuality, not only among ELCA members but other Protestant denominations, will polarize an American public already deeply divided over the issues of human sexuality.

While conservative congregations will not be forced to hire gay clergy, these opponents nevertheless warned there could be spiritual consequences for a church that strays from the Bible. “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 of St. Timothy Lutheran Church in Charleston, W.Va. Mahan said he believed a majority of his congregation would want to now break away from the ELCA.

ELCA supporters of its denomination decision to allow gays in the clergy said failure to accept this change ran just as great a risk of alienating large portions of the membership, particularly younger ones. “There are people in homosexual relationships in our churches. They live in communion,” said Pastor Serena Sellers of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod. “I believe it’s important to the morality of our church that we give all people the opportunity to be held accountable for the choices they make,” she added.

The presiding bishop is seeking to keep unity among ELCA members. Bishop Hanson said that “it’s going to take time to sort out how we live together in light of these decisions. It would be tragic if we talked away from one another. This is a time for thoughtful, engaged, prayerful, imaginative responses.”

I’ll keep you informed of any further developments as time goes on. In the meantime, let us pray for all Christian denominations struggling with these vexing issues.

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