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Local Evangelical Lutherans share mixed reactions to policy allowing ordination of noncelibate gays

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 26, 2009 - On Tuesday, a concerned mother visited the Lutheran Church of the Atonement in Florissant to ask if her daughter's confirmation classes would include the Bible's teachings on the sinfulness of homosexuality.

Her hasty visit was in response to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's decision Friday to ordain gays and lesbians living in committed relationships with same-sex partners. The denomination does not perform marriages for gay couples.

Last week, two-thirds of the delegates at the ELCA's week-long assembly in Minneapolis approved the new ordination policy. The vote was 676-338. Before then, only celibate gays and lesbians could be ordained in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the nation's largest Lutheran body.


The Rev. Richard Mueller, the pastor of Atonement, listened to the mother's concerns; he also took phone calls from a half dozen other anxious parishioners. Mueller has heard only negative reactions to Friday's vote. About 80 percent of his 1,700 members oppose the ordination of homosexuals, he estimates. Of those who approve, only six or eight members might be called jubilant, he said. Had he attended the assembly, he would have voted no, he said.

However, Mueller says the new regulation is nuanced enough to calm members. ELCA leaders wrote that no parish has to consider calling a homosexual pastor -- whether celibate or in a relationship. In contrast, when the ELCA opened its ministry to women, every parish with a pastoral vacancy had to prepare a list of candidates that included at least one woman. If their bishops proposed a qualified woman pastor and they refused her, some were punished by a "very long wait" before being assigned a male replacement, Mueller said.

"This time, there is sort of a wink-wink, hush-hush attitude that ordained gay and lesbian pastors will be in only a few places," he said. "You have to share a roster with some of these folks who hold opposing views, but it really won't affect your parish."

Disappointed Atonement members likely will "live with" their church's new policy, hoping that what happens across the nation doesn't affect their Florissant congregation, he said.

In Kirkwood at Trinity Lutheran Church, parishioners "fall on both sides of this vote like many Midwest suburban ELCA parishes," said its interim pastor, the Rev. Gary Voss. But no one should be surprised by Friday's vote, Voss said. The ELCA has studied the issue for a decade and observed other churches' actions on the issue.

"I hope that the faith community realizes that it is called to be countercultural, not obnoxious and totally uncivil, on this issue, which seems to be the norm" in the wider American culture today, Trinity's Voss said.

At another St. Louis Evangelical Lutheran parish, members have mixed feelings on the issue.

"So far (reaction) has been very calm, and I hope that continues," said the Rev. Roy Ledbetter, pastor of St. Philip's Lutheran, a congregation that draws more than 80 worshippers most Sundays. Not one person mentioned the vote at his congregation Sunday, he said. Nor did he.

At Bethel Lutheran in University City, the reaction was all favorable on Sunday. The Rev. William L. Yancey, its pastor for the past 22 years, said the congregration was proud of its long history of welcoming gay, lesbian and transgendered individuals.

"Because we have lived with this for years, I'd say there was pride and happiness that it occurred," he said. "I know of no opposition here."

Eighteen years ago, Bethel's congregation voted to open its doors with warm welcome and ministry to gays. Bethel's lawn church sign, just across Big Bend Boulevard from the Washington University's Francis Field, signals that welcome with a small, multicolored rainbow triangle.

"On balance, it was a really positive vote," said Yancy who also thought that the new policy would "encourage folks to be more open to homosexuals, (but) I suspect it will also will encourage folks already opposed to dig their heels in deeper in opposition."

The ELCA Central States Synod's Washington University campus ministry house on Forsyth Boulevard is just west of Bethel. Many of those students are part of the congregation whose weekly attendance is about 165. Adding to the congregation's youthfulness are "graduates" of the campus ministry who remain in St. Louis. The church also is a community mainstay welcoming others to use its school building, including mediation groups, justice groups and a strong Boy Scouts program.

ELCA joins two other Protestant denominations in policyT

his branch of Lutherans joins two other mainline Protestant denominations -- the Episcopal Church and the United Church of Christ -- in allowing gays and lesbians in committed same-sex partnerships to be ordained.

Other mainline Protestant denominations oppose the ordination of gays but have strong leadership that continues to push for it. A year ago, the leaders of the nation's largest mainline Protestant body -- the United Methodist Church -- voted to uphold its ban on openly gay, non-celibate clergy in an emotional floor battle. This summer, for a third time, delegates to the Presbyterian Church (USA) national meeting -- the largest Presbyterian body -- defeated a proposal to ordain openly gay and lesbian pastors. Still, at each of its three tallies over the years, Presbyterians' approval numbers have increased.

In June the ELCA Central States Synod, a geographical district that includes Missouri and Kansas, approved the ordination change at its synod meeting in Kansas. In reaction, Trinity Lutheran Church in Ava, Mo., discontinued its contribution to the synod's mission funds. The Kansas vote did not bind the synod delegates.

At a similar meeting of the Central Southern Illinois Synod, no vote on the issue was taken. Some Southern Illinois members told that synod's leader Bishop Warren Freiheit of Springfield that they were "sick of talking about the issue."

In interviews Tuesday afternoon, both ELCA bishops with members in the St. Louis region, Freiheit of Central Southern Illinois and Bishop Jerry Mansholt of Central States Synod, told the Beacon that church members need one another and need the voices of those on both sides. Both bishops are ready to sit down with church members to talk about the change at parishes or clusters of parishes.

"I want to participate in discussions," said Mansholt.

Both bishops see generational differences. Most young members have known openly gay and lesbian individuals for years.

"Most younger members are wondering why we even dealing with it since the church (teaches) that we treat everyone with respect and equality," Freiheit said. "Of course, they have spent more time in the culture. Christ ministered to the culture of his day. This is the culture we are in,"

Should the church fear loss of members?

Last week at the Minneapolis meeting, delegate John Sang of the Ohio Synod stood at a microphone and predicted schism. "I really believe . . . what we are about to do will split the church," Sang said.

ELCA bishops expect some members to leave.

"There will be losses" of members, Freiheit said. "There are those members who have made it known that they could not stay in good conscience."

The Episcopal Church and the United Church of Christ lost thousands of members after ordaining non-celibate gays and lesbians. Since the 2003 installation of Gene Robinson as the Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire diocese, four Episcopal dioceses and many other parishes left the Episcopal Church. In late June, Bishop Robert Duncan, former Episcopal Bishop of Pittsburgh, backed by support from Anglican bishops in Third World nations, founded the Anglican Church in North America, in Bedford, Tex. He claims 100,000 founding members, nearly all former Episcopalians who call homosexual acts sinful.

In 1998 the then-largest United Church of Christ church in the St. Louis region -- St. John's in Creve Coeur -- was one of several Missouri UCC congregations to withdraw from the UCC over ordination of gays and openness to gays and lesbians in their denomination's children's optional texts.

Freiheit hopes ELCA members will not have "knee-jerk" reactions, but if they must witness to a different opinion they might join a proposed group that is not a separate church body -- Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ.

"It is my hope that if they join that group, they will still be in full pulpit fellowship with the ELCA," Freiheit said.

Ledbetter, of St. Philip Lutheran, is filled with sorrow at the idea of church breakaways: "There is nothing worse that splitting a church, really. It's reprehensible."

Bishop Mansholt prays for calm acceptance.

"I hope and I pray with God's help that we will find ways to live together with some diversity of perspective and practice," Mansholt said. "That would be a great witness to our faith, a great witness in the world."

History of ELCA

Forty-five Evangelical Lutheran Church in America congregations with about 10,000 members are in the St. Louis region on both sides of the Mississippi River, according to Bishop Jerry Mansholt, leader of Central States Synod of Missouri and Kansas.

North America's 9.5 million Lutherans are spread among 21 different Lutheran church denominations. Most St. Louis-area Lutherans belong to the more conservative Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, based in Kirkwood.

The 5.1 million member Chicago-based ELCA was established in 1988 in a merger of three Lutheran bodies. Its founding leaders included breakaway members of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod after Clayton's Concordia Seminary faculty and its elected leadership broke into schism in 1974.

Patricia Rice, a freelance writer in St. Louis, has long covered religion.