Gay minister faces defrocking for having life partner

Anthony Cuesta | January 22, 2007

Rev. Bradley Schmeling
ATLANTA — The Atlanta, Ga. minister who came out of the closet to the city’s oldest Lutheran church before it hired him as its pastor could now be fired for announcing he has a partner.

The Associated Press reports that Rev. Bradley Schmeling was chosen in 2000 to lead St. John's, though some worried his sexuality could threaten its standing with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. But last year, the 350-member congregation threw a party for him and his partner, when Schmeling announced he had found a lifelong companion.

Bishop Ronald Warren of the ELCA's Southeastern Synod, however, asked the 44-year-old pastor to resign. When Schmeling refused, Warren started disciplinary proceedings against him for violating church rules barring sex outside of marriage.

Today, Schmeling faces a hearing – structured much like a trial – where a committee of 12 ELCA members will decide whether he can remain an ordained minister in the church, reports the AP.

If the committee rules against Schmeling, he could face suspension or no longer be recognized as an ordained minister in the ELCA. In the latter case, if his congregation opts to keep him as its pastor, the ELCA could also discipline St. John's.

Over the past three decades, most mainline Protestant denominations have become more accepting of gays. Some, like the United Church of Christ, even support the rights of gays to marry.

The ELCA has not gone that far. According to the The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, it won't allow any "practicing" gays in sexual relationships with people of the same gender to be ordained as clergy.

Those guidelines have been adopted by some other Protestant denominations. It's viewed as a middle ground, a way to avoid schism. Yet inevitably a congregation will violate these rules, deeming the celibacy requirements as outmoded interpretation of Scripture.

St. John's is such a church. When it called Schmeling for interviews in 2000, he told them he was gay. But it wasn't an issue, Laura Crawley, the congregation's president, told the Journal-Constitution.

"At the time, the bishop approved him," she says, reports the Journal-Constituion. "We were not breaking any sort of rules in calling him."

Schmeling and his supporters say they hope his case will make the church more accepting of pastors in same-sex relationships.

"We've always been a church that emphasizes the unconditional love of God, so this policy runs counter to that," Schmeling said in an interview with The Associated Press last weekend.

ELCA spokesman John Brooks said that if a heterosexual pastor was in a relationship outside of marriage and he refused to repent, he would face similar disciplinary proceedings. When Warren announced in August that he was taking action against Schmeling, he said he wouldn't comment until a verdict was rendered.

In 2005, delegates to an ELCA national meeting rejected a proposal to allow sexually active gays and lesbians in committed, long-term relationships to be ordained.

Schmeling and his supporters say the policy barring sexually active gay pastors is discriminatory by forcing them to refrain from sex, while heterosexuals only have to wait for marriage.

Schmeling's hearing, which will be closed to the public, is expected to run through the weekend. Afterward, the 12-person committee – comprised of both clergy and lay people, including two members chosen by Schmeling – will have a couple of weeks to decide whether to take action, which could include a suspension or removal from ordained ministry. – Issued by Gay Link Content

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