After hours of debate at the Minneapolis Convention Center, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) voted Friday evening to lift its ban on openly gay and lesbian clergy in committed relationships. Advocates on both sides made passionate pleas, with proponents saying the future of the church depends on a more progressive stance on homosexuality and opponents saying the decision could split the church. The vote was decisive but has left many Lutherans upset.
“If we trust scripture in matters of Christ, why don’t we trust it in human sexuality?” asked Pastor Michael Johnson of the Western North Dakota Synod.
Fred Heintz of the Northwest Ohio Synod urged ELCA members to vote “no” until the group had come to a unified stance on the issue. “We do not have a consensus. There’s a time to listen and a time to wait. I am willing to continue to explore this issue.”
Larry Christiansen of the Southeast Iowa Synod argued that the ban doesn’t jibe with the teachings of Christ.
“Look to yourselves and your own sin. Jesus said to apply the law ruthlessly for ourselves, and graciously toward others,” he said. “Our current policy bears false witness to our Lord.”
Craig Johnson of the Eastern North Dakota Synod opposed repealing the ban. “I feel in my stomach that something is seriously wrong. Loving our neighbor I agree is essential… but it does not condone doing what is not right.”
John Seng, a member of the Northeastern Ohio Synod, expressed a widely held belief: that the vote will split the church: “It saddens me that we are going this way.”
Others, like Brittani Lamb of the Southwestern Minnesota Synod, said that for the ELCA to survive, it needs to understand that young people want gays and lesbians to have equal standing in the church. “For the church to say that God loves everyone but not show that to homosexuals is hypocritical. If this resolution fails, not only will we lose great pastors but will lose younger people too.”
Pastor Paul Tidemann of the St. Paul Synod said that when his church left the ELCA in 2000 in order to roster the Rev. Anita Hill, a lesbian in a committed relationship, membership at their church blossomed. “The issue of welcoming LGBT people the congregation continues to strengthen in spirit and numbers. When we decided in 2000 to call Rev. Anita Hill, our decision was to ordain her. And in the end after a vote of 181 to nothing, our congregation grew by over one hundred.”
The vote to allow gay and lesbian pastors in committed relationships to lead congregations passed by a vote of 559 to 451.
After the vote, one ELCA member seemed nonplussed and asked the presiding bishop for support. “We have taken some historic votes today. Can you share with some of us who are deeply disturbed why they should continue in this church?”
Many people have been disappointed in the vote. Minnesota’s own religious right, the Minnesota Family Council, released a statement immediately following the vote Friday afternoon.
“With this vote to affirm homosexual behavior and clergy, the ELCA has fully embraced moral relativism and jettisoned its moral authority in the community. They’ve embraced postmodernism and rejected the clear teaching of Scripture and Christian practice for nearly 2,000 years,” said Prichard.
“Speaking as a Lutheran, with this vote the ELCA needs to change its name. It’s no longer ‘Lutheran’ or ‘Evangelical.’ They have turned their back on the authority of the Bible, the foundation on which Martin Luther started the Reformation,” said Prichard.
Rev. Paull Spring of State College, Pa., chair of Lutheran CORE, a group who lobbied against the measure, said, “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. It breaks my heart.”
But for many, today’s vote was met with excitement. “This is a joyous day for the LGBT Lutherans who no longer have to choose between their spirituality and their sexuality,” Human Rights Campaign president Joe Solmonese said.
“Thanks be to God for our colleagues at Lutherans Concerned and all of the Goodsoil coalition,” said Harry Knox, director for HRC’s Religion and Faith Program. “The ELCA has studied, prayed and listened to the witness of its LGBT sisters and brothers, and has come to consensus in community. This decision reflects the best of Lutheran tradition.”
Emily Eastwood, executive director of Lutherans Concerned/North America, said, “Today I am proud to be a Lutheran. Supporters and advocates of full inclusion have longed for this day since the inception of the ELCA, and for many of us what seemed like a lifetime.”
The ELCA also voted to ensure that churches that decline to allow gays and lesbians in committed relationships have that right and each congregation is free to make the decision that best fits them.
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