MINNEAPOLIS | Conservatives at the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s churchwide assembly here were still reeling Thursday from losing — by one vote — their battle to defeat a new social statement that gives validity to same-sex relationships.
As they strategized, other Lutherans attending the denomination’s biennial meeting overwhelmingly voted 958-51 Thursday to enter into full communion with the 7.9-million-member United Methodist Church, joining the forces of two of America’s largest mainline Protestant denominations.
That ecumenical triumph did not comfort the Rev. Paull Spring, chairman of the group Lutheran Coalition for Reform (CORE), who called the results of Wednesday’s social statement vote “distressing, anguishing and appalling.”
“We were hoping we’d carry the day,” he said. “There’s no real consensus in this church. It’s a shock the church would make a decision like this on the basis of one vote.”
Wednesday’s vote of 676 “yes” votes to 338 “no” votes was the exact total needed to pass a new social statement that redefines the denomination’s position on some sexual issues including homosexuality. Thirty-one other registered members did not vote, some of whom apparently left for dinner, thinking the key vote would be delayed until Thursday.
“It was very distressing, disappointing and discouraging,” said Ryan Schwarz, a member of the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in McLean, Va. “The social statement was so devoid of Lutheran theology and the teaching of Scripture.
“The church is called to be faithful to Scripture even when it’s achingly hard. We have people in CORE who are gay. We wish for their sake the church could change its teaching on this matter but God hasn’t given us this authority.”
Phil Soucy, a spokesman for the gay caucus Lutherans Concerned, said it was quite a feat to get as many as two-thirds of the Lutheran body to approve the statement. “They pushed to make it a two-thirds vote,” he said of conservatives, “and now they’re complaining it only passed by one vote. This was so much more difficult to get than a simple majority. We have a consensus of a two-thirds vote.”
Conservatives admitted Thursday things are looking bleak for an upcoming battle Friday to defeat a series of proposals leading toward the acceptance of openly gay clergy. Their chief battle will lie in persuading like-minded churches not to bolt the denomination.
“Our hope and prayer is those ELCA congregations who uphold the authority of God’s Word over all matters of faith and life won’t do anything rash,” said Mark Chavez, executive director of CORE, “but to work together to do the things the ELCA should be doing in terms of ecumenical relationships and becoming a multicultural church.”
They are asking concerned Lutherans to attend CORE’s annual meeting Sept. 25-26 at Christ the Savior Lutheran Church in Fishers, Ind., to discern what to do next.
The 4.7-million-member ELCA was more united in its vote on the Methodists.
Lutherans and Methodists started a formal dialogue in 1977, then have hammered out agreements on baptism, Holy Communion, missions, bishops and other theological tenets. In 2005, the ELCA approved - along with the United Methodist Bishops Council - an interim Eucharist sharing between the two churches. In April 2008, the General Conference of the United Methodist Church voted for full communion with the ELCA by an 864-19 vote.
United Methodist Bishop Gregory Palmer, president of the United Methodist Council of Bishops, told the assembly they were doing a “deeply evangelistic work.” He continued, “I am grateful we have come to this point. It will be a great day should you vote to choose this full communion.”
Numerous ELCA bishops lined up at the microphones to urge voting members to approve the full communion agreement. After the lopsided vote, Presiding ELCA Bishop Mark Hanson said, “We rejoice in what the Spirit has in store for us.”
The United Methodist Church is the largest and the sixth Christian body (after the Moravians, Episcopalians, the Reformed Church in America, the United Church of Christ and the Presbyterian Church USA) with which the ELCA has established full communion. Full communion means the churches will work for visible unity in Jesus Christ, recognize each other’s ministries, work together on ministry initiatives, and sometimes allow the interchangeability of ordained clergy.