Under the new policy, individual ELCA congregations will be allowed to hire homosexuals as clergy as long as they are in a committed relationships. Until now, gays and lesbians had to remain celibate to serve as clergy.
The change passed with the support of 68 percent of about 1,000 delegates at the ELCA's national assembly. It makes the group, with about 4.7 million members in the U.S., one of the largest U.S. Christian denominations yet to take a more gay-friendly stance. . . .
In September, Lutheran CORE — the group that led the fight against the changes — is holding a convention in Indianapolis to discuss the next steps. It encouraged ELCA members and congregations to direct finances away from ELCA churchwide organizations and toward "faithful ministries within and outside of the ELCA."
The ELCA is the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the mainline Christian denomination formed from numerous consolidations of ethnically based Lutheran denominations in the U.S. that were established mostly as U.S. based extensions of established churches in Scandinavia and Northern Europe.
The two main conservative Christian Lutheran denominations in the U.S. are the Missouri Synod and the Wisconsin Synod (WELS) (which is generally even more militantly conservative than the Missouri Synod). The fact that these two denominations exist and are fairly widespread geographically (despite their denominational names) makes individual departures from the ELCA to churches affiliated with one of these denominations more likely than a major schism in the ELCA denomination itself.
My own Washington Park neighborhood in Denver is home to two Lutheran churches, both of which are within walking distance of my home. The larger, which also has a private school is St. John's a Missouri Synod Lutheran Church just to the East of the park. The smaller, Epiphany Lutheran Church, just to the West of the park, is part of the ELCA denomination.
Within the ELCA, the decision shifts gay and lesbian clergy acceptance from something institutionally prohibited, to essentially the level of any other personal issue to be considered in matching individual clergy to an individual congregation.
All of the major American Lutheran denominations are organized on a fairly democratic basis with lay participation in governance at the level of the congregation (generally a single church and roughly equivalent to a Roman Catholic parish), and broader regional and national levels associated with bishops (roughly equivalent to a Roman Catholic dioceses). Congregations have a significant say in the selection of their local clergy, but operate within policies set by the denomination. They are similar in governance (although not terminology) to the Episcopal and Presbyterian churches, and quite different from Baptist churches where congregational level governance generally has primacy. The Roman Catholic church is governed from the top down, although the reality is that there is lay input that is considered seriously particularly in non-doctrinal matters.
The Presbyterian Church, like the Lutheran Church, has both mainline and conservative denominations. The Roman Catholic Church and the Episcopal church (a part of the international Anglican communion), in contrast, are in theory, unitary, with just a single international system within which all affiliated entities operate. American Catholics and Episcopalians tend to be more socially liberal than their international denominations as a whole.
The ELCA decision culminates many years of debate on gay rights issues in the denomination. Developments in other denominations are described here.
"Just weeks ago, Episcopalians approved a resolution saying that 'God has called and may call' gays in committed relationships to ordained ministry in the church[.]" This has moved the Episcopal church towards schism, with conservatives looking to affiliate themselves with Anglican denominations based in Africa, which are more conservative.
The Presbyterian Church (USA) [the largest Presbyterian denomination which is generally a mainline Christian denomination] has inched closer to joining the Episcopalians and Lutherans, but the latest effort to undo a policy requiring chastity of gay clergy was defeated this year.
The nation's largest mainline denomination, the United Methodist Church, has moved in the opposite direction, hardening its opposition to non-celibate gay clergy.
That's likely to continue because of declining Methodist membership in the Northeast and on the West Coast and growth in the South and Sunbelt, said Steinmetz, of Duke. The church also has a burgeoning presence in Africa, a source of conservatism in the Anglican battles, also.
The Presbyterian Church's relative conservatism can also be partially explained by the fact that the United Church of Christ, which draws on the same reformed church tradition of the Presbyterians, both of which are indirect descendants of Calvin's church in Geneva, Switzerland, has staked out a socially liberal and welcoming position that has provided an alternatives for Presbyterians unhappy with their denomination's approach. High church Methodists can exit to the Episcopal or ELCA Lutheran denominations with relative ease, while low church Methodists can also exit to the United Church of Christ with relatively little discomfort.
The various doctrinal battles within the various mainline Protestant churches has decreasing relevance, however.
From 2001 to 2008, mainline Protestants dropped from just over 17 percent to 12.9 percent of the population, according to the American Religious Identification Survey, released this year. The study also found that nearly 39 percent of mainline Protestants consider themselves born-again or evangelical Christians—a group likely to push back on liberal stances on sexuality.
Decreasing mainline Protestant identification has come in part from demographic change (as the non-Hispanic whites who make up those denominations shrink in their share of the U.S. population), in part from a shift to people like me, who now identify themselves as non-religious (and are often more socially liberal), and in part from a shift towards conservative Christian denominations.
Lutheran and Episcopal denominations, in turn, are frequent churches of choice for former Roman Catholics, as both are immediate descendants from the Roman Catholic church during the Protestant Reformation, that were originally established churches, that retained much of the Catholic liturgy and a similar approach to the Christian faith.