The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America had debated lifting its ban on non-celibate gay clergy for years, with tensions flaring at each biennial Churchwide Assembly.
Still, when the ban was finally lifted late Friday (Aug. 21), it came as a surprise -- and an unwelcome one at that -- to some conservatives in the nation's largest Lutheran denomination.
"The first reaction is that they are stunned," said the Rev. Jonathan Jenkins, who addressed the new clergy policy at his Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Lebanon, Pa. "We've been talking about this as a possibility for some time, but I think most of our people did not expect this to happen."
Jenkins said that many, but not all, members of his congregation, where 185 gather for worship each Sunday, were dismayed by the change. Jenkins is one of several pastors who are organizing a meeting in Central Pennsylvania this week to discuss the new policy and whether to stay in the ELCA.
Even before last week's convention in Minneapolis, conservatives in Lutheran CORE, which counts about 300,000 members, planned to hold their own gathering next month in Indianapolis. CORE leaders said the group will consider a range of options, from creating a separate church within the ELCA to directing donations away from the ELCA's Chicago headquarters.
Delegates at the ELCA's convention said opening the pulpit to gay clergy in committed, monogamous relationships accords with the Bible's overall message of tolerance and inclusion. But conservatives say the Bible clearly denounces homosexual activity, and that any church that condones homosexuality has turned its back on Scripture.
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Before the assembly, ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson dismissed notions that the denomination's debate over homosexuality could become as divisive as it has in the Episcopal Church, which has seen thousands of conservatives defect since the election of an openly gay bishop in 2003. In July, the Episcopal Church voted to allow more gay bishops and blessings of same-sex unions, setting off a fresh round of recriminations in the Anglican Communion.
After Friday's vote, Hanson pleaded with conservatives in his 4.6 million-member denomination to "stay in there with us." "It would be tragic if we walked away from one another," Hanson said.
But a number of conservative congregations are already running out the door.
Some are heading for Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ, a network of conservative congregations, said the group's national coordinator, the Rev. Bill Sullivan.
"We are being inundated with calls from former ELCA congregations," Sullivan said. "I expect that at the very least, we will double in the next year and a half." The LCMC has about 175 member congregations in the U.S.; the ELCA has approximately 10,000 congregations.
Sullivan said he had talked to 25 congregations on Monday alone. "It's a sad day for the ELCA, but a day filled with opportunity for working together with other likeminded Lutheran Christians for us."
Because the LCMC is a viable Lutheran denomination, certain churches can defect there under ELCA rules without losing their property, pastors or pensions, said the Rev. Jaynan Clark, president of the conservative WordAlone Network. Some congregations hold dual membership in both the ELCA and the LCMC.
Before the ELCA assembly, WordAlone compiled a four-page fact sheet for congregations considering leaving the denomination, listing the LCMC as a top option.
Robert Benne, director of the Center for Religion and Society at the ELCA-affiliated Roanoke College in Virginia, said conservatives will likely head in many different directions, and predicts that at least 200 congregations will soon distance themselves from the ELCA.
"It's going to be very diffuse," said Benne, who serves on the advisory board for Lutheran CORE. "Some lay people will want their congregation to leave, some will want to be assured that their congregation" will not hire a gay pastor. Still others will withhold sending money to ELCA headquarters and some will "reluctantly go along with what happened," Benne said.