US Lutheran church second-guessing ban on gay clergy

Anthony Cuesta | February 12, 2007

WASHINGTON, DC — The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is second-guessing its ban on gay and lesbian ministers in their clergy after it recently defrocked one such clergy member.

The Christian Post reports that a discipline hearing committee of the ELCA ruled this week that the Rev. Bradley E. Schmeling, pastor of St. John Lutheran Church in Atlanta, be removed from the clergy roster after he reported to his bishop that he is in a committed relationship with another man.

While the ruling committee made its decision in alignment with ELCA's policy on homosexual ministers, the Christian Post reports that it called the policy a "bad" one.

The committee, made up of 12 Lutheran pastors from across the country, also recommended the assembly consider reinstating pastors who have been ousted from their positions for being in committed same-sex relationships. Religion News Service reports that Emily Eastwood, executive director of the Lutheran gay rights group Lutherans Concerned/North America, called the ruling "astounding and unprecedented."

"This is not about the removal (of Schmeling)," she told Religion News Service. "If he had been acquitted or censured we would have dodged a bullet in this one case, but, since the decision calls for his removal at a specific time and calls for a change within that time frame, we have an opportunity to change the policy outright." A statement in the Lutheran denomination's "Definitions and Guidelines for Discipline" requires that "practicing homosexual persons are precluded from the ordained ministry of this church." But if that requirement were removed, the committee said that it would "almost unanimously" have kept Schmeling as a clergy member, reports the Christian Post.

The committee would find that "Pastor Schmeling is not engaged in conduct that is incompatible with the ministerial office, and would find with near unanimity that no discipline of any sort should be imposed against him," according to the ELCA News Service.

The Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay rights group, called the committee's suggestions "encouraging."

Some evangelicals spoke out in disappointment.

According to the Rev. Ronald B. Warren, bishop of the ELCA Southeastern Synod in Atlanta, Schmeling specifically disclosed to him that he is in a "sexual relationship with an adult male."

Schmeling had admitted to being in violation of ELCA's policy for ordained ministers, Warren said. Following established standards of the church, Warren filed charges against Schmeling on Aug. 8, 2006, after the gay pastor refused to resign.

"It was my responsibility as bishop of this synod to enforce the established standards of this church," said Warren in a written statement, according to the ELCA News Service, "particularly when the 2005 Churchwide Assembly decided that the church would not create a process for possible exceptions to existing behavior expectations for pastors."

The disciplinary committee's suggestions come a few weeks after the ELCA released its third and final study on human sexuality. The study series is part of an effort to obtain the response of the people in the pews to help shape the church's stance on human sexuality, including homosexual ordination. A draft of the ELCA social statement is due out early 2009. – Issued by Gay Link Content

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