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Debate divided on gay clergy in Lutheran church

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Pastors and partners
Bradley Schmeling (left), a defrocked ELCA pastor, and his partner Darin Easler, a former ELCA pastor who now belongs to the United Church of Christ.
MPR Photo/Martin Moylan

Leaders of the country's largest Lutheran denomination -- the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America -- are in Minneapolis this week. They'll be debating many issues, most notably whether or not to allow sexually active homosexuals in committed relationships to serve as clergy. 

The ELCA has some 4.7 million members and about 10,000 congregations in the United States and it would be one of the largest U.S. Christian denominations yet to take a more gay-friendly stance on clergy.

Currently, gays and lesbians can serve as ministers in the church as long as they are celibate. The 1,045 church delegates gathered at the Minneapolis Convention Center will consider a proposal that would allow individual congregations to let gays and lesbians in committed sexual relationships to serve as pastors and in certain lay positions. 

There is no celibacy requirement for heterosexual ministers in the church.

Bishop Mark Hanson leads the Chicago-based Lutheran denomination. Hanson recognizes some church members fervently support a move to end the celibacy requirement for gay clergy while others vehemently oppose the idea.

But Hanson feels the church won't be split over the issue, no matter what decision is made.

"I believe most members of our church want to find an answer that acknowledges their deeply held convictions but doesn't lead to division," Hanson said.

Bishop Mark Hanson
Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson speaks at a news conference Monday Aug. 17, 2009 during the Evangelical Lutheran in America (ELCA) convention at the Minneapolis Convention Center. More than 1,000 members of the ELCA will vote this week on whether to lift a ban on gay and lesbian clergy to remain celibate while leading churches.
Dawn Villella/ Associated Press

The debate, however, is about the deeply controversial issue of sex.

"Human sexuality, particularly but not only the place of gay and lesbian people in the life of the church and ministry, has become  one of those polarizing questions in our culture that I don't think  ultimately should define us and therefore divide us," Hanson said.

Some Lutherans don't share Hanson's confidence.

They include Rev. Dave Glesne of Redeemer Lutheran Church in Fridley. Glesne is against letting people in same-sex relationships serve in the clergy of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and he said his congregation is behind him.

"I would hold to Christ's view of a marriage and that all sexual activity outside of the one-man/one-woman relationship is contrary to God's will and therefore sinful behavior," Glesne said. "That would cover the blessing of same sex unions as well as the ordaining of non-celibate persons."

Glesne believes a decision to treat homosexual clergy the same as heterosexual clergy could cause some Lutherans to leave the church.

Rev. Dave Glesne
Rev. Dave Glesne, pastor of an ELCA parish in Fridley, Minn., opposes the move to allow same-sex clergy who are in relationships to lead Lutheran congregations.
MPR Photo/Martin Moylan

"If the assembly embraces the blessing of same-sex unions and the [admitting] of non-celibate same-sex persons, that will cause many people in this church to have to think very deeply," he said. "It could be a parting of ways for a number of people."

But Glesne expects gay and lesbian proponents may be more accepting of defeat and would not leave the church in anger.

He may be right.

Bradley Schmeling of Georgia said he was defrocked as a pastor when his sexual relations with another Lutheran pastor become widely known. But he said he's still active in the church and his congregation continues to support him. 

Schmeling said he could accept defeat on the celibacy issue this year, figuring change is inevitable.

"Clearly the momentum is toward change and I think the Holy Spirit is leading the church into this change," Schmeling said. "Whether it happens fully this time, I'm not sure about it. But it will definitely happen because the church is moving in that direction."

Schelming doesn't see a debate about the celibacy of gay clergy splitting the church.

"Lutherans have an opportunity to demonstrate that we're not a church that splits into polarity on this issue but finds a way to be together," he said. "We've always had a tradition of having a variety of opinions on moral issues but have been able to stay together as one church."

Delegates are scheduled to vote on the gay clergy issue Friday