ELCA feeling backlash from controversial vote on gay clergy

Moment of prayer
Evangelical Lutheran Church of America voting members, left to right, Orinda Hawkins-Brinkley, Diane Yeager. Marj Ellis and Steven Schnittke, along with other members of the ELCA, stop for a moment of prayer Friday morning Aug. 21, 2009 during their assembly at the Minneapolis Convention Center in Minneapolis.
AP Photo/Dawn VIllella

Just a month after the nation's largest Lutheran denomination voted to accept non-celibate gay clergy, a backlash is taking shape in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America as some Minnesota congregations are considering plans to sever ties with the church.

At the national assembly of the ELCA last month, delegates voted to allow gays and lesbians in committed relationships to serve as clergy, dropping a requirement that they be celibate.

The move angered some in the 4.7 million-member church.

This weekend, about 1,200 members of a conservative group called Lutheran CORE are expected to meet in Indianapolis to discuss forming an alternative church fellowship.

Lutheran CORE has also been urging congregations to direct funding away from the national church. Lutheran congregations send anywhere from $100 to hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to the ELCA.

The Rev. David Glesne, a pastor in Fridley and member of Lutheran CORE, said the gay clergy vote was the latest in a long history of what he sees as divisive moves by the ELCA.

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

"That was the straw that broke the camel's back for us," Glesne said.

Glesne, like many conservative Lutherans, see the vote to allow gay clergy as a major departure from traditional Lutheran teachings. His church has already cut most financial contributions to the ELCA.

"It was in direct response to that vote that we discontinued giving beyond the congregation to the wider church," he said

And his church is not alone.

Wednesday night, King of Kings Lutheran church in Woodbury announced it was suspending financial contributions to the national church while it decides whether to remain part of the ELCA.

Calls requesting comment from the pastor of King of Kings were not returned.

The Rev. Scott Grorud from Faith Lutheran Church in Hutchinson said it's no surprise that congregations are already choosing to split with the ELCA.

"The buzzing question now is: are you leaving the ELCA?" Grorud said. "And it isn't just spin to say, no - the ELCA has left us. They are the ones that have moved here and so the real question that many of us are facing is have they now moved far enough that we can no longer faithfully remain in relationship with them."

Grorud said the decision to sever financial ties is not a knee-jerk reaction to the gay clergy vote. Rather, he said, it's the culmination of years of disagreement between the ELCA and more conservative congregations.

Presiding ELCA Bishop Mark Hanson said he's deeply saddened that some pastors are choosing to abandon the church over this.

"My invitation and my reminder is that we need you to stay in the conversation with us because these questions did not all get tied up neatly in Minneapolis," Hanson said. "Questions about how we understand the authority of the Bible, questions about what it means to be a church today, questions about authority and faithfulness; those questions are before us and we need as full and rich a conversation that we can possibly have."

Hanson laid out his concerns in a letter to church leaders earlier this week. He warned that withholding financial support to protest the gay clergy vote would be "devastating" to the church.

Hanson said it's unclear how much of the church's overall budget comes from church contributions. He said it's too soon to tell what financial impact the move to split with the ELCA could ultimately have on the church.

But, he said he hopes congregations will carefully consider their actions.

"Will the people in that pew in Minnesota who vote to withhold money from the ELCA synod and church wide at least consider that the end result of that may be employees in the church wide organization that lose their job," he said, "who are single parents, who are caring for three children and perhaps an elderly mother, who will now join the growing list of unemployed people in the United States?"

Bishop Hanson said a loss of financial support will also limit the church's ability to continue its ministries around the world and help people in need.

The Rev. Kelly Chatman of Redeemer Lutheran Church in Minneapolis said his congregation is diverse and includes some gay and lesbian members. But he said even those in his congregation who did not support the move to allow gay clergy largely felt the process was fair.

"The tent of our body is large enough for people to have dissenting points of view and that we wouldn't jeopardize the mission of our church over those differences," he said.

Chatman said he's hopeful that Lutherans will find a way to get through this challenging time.

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