MINNEAPOLIS | The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America passed several resolutions Friday that recognize committed gay relationships and, for the first time, permit non-celibate homosexuals to be Lutheran clergy.
The resolution on clergy, easily the most controversial, passed by 559 “yes” votes (55.3 percent) to 451 “no” votes (44.6 percent). It committed the ELCA to open its clergy ranks to people in “publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships.”
Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson asked for silence and prayer for several minutes after the historic vote.
A klatch of female pastors, several of them lesbians, who were standing in the rear of the cavernous assembly hall at the Minneapolis Convention Center dissolved into tears.
“I feel a tremendous amount of joy and a tremendous amount of pain,” confessed the Rev. Jenny Mason, a St. Paul cleric who said she was ejected from the official list of ELCA “rostered” clergy in 2001 for having a same-sex lover. “This means our church can move forward and practice this welcome” toward gays.
The Rev. Donna Simon, pastor of Abiding Peace Lutheran Church in Kansas City, Mo., echoed Ms. Mason’s sentiment. “It was time our church was in front of our world and not behind it.”
But one of the top runners for vice president of the ELCA called the vote on gay clergy “appalling.”
“The assembly has voted to remove the ELCA from the universal Christian consensus on marriage and homosexual behavior,” said Ryan Schwarz, a leader of the Lutheran Coalition for Reform. “The church should not be voting on whether or not to follow the teaching of the Bible.”
A prior vote, which allows congregations to “recognize, support and hold publicly accountable life-long, monogamous, same-gender relationships,” passed by 619 “yes” (60.6 percent) to 402 “no” votes (39.3 percent) Friday morning.
Bishop H. Gerard Knoche, head of the 90,000-member Delaware-Maryland Synod, said he wept after the first resolution passed.
“I was in despair over this; that the church has moved in this direction,” he said. “I went into the worship session and cried. That helped. I am now trying to deal this reality before I retire. I’ll do what I can to hold the church together.”
As they stood in long lines in front of the microphones during morning and afternoon sessions Friday, Lutherans passionately spoke, quoted Scripture and their founder Martin Luther, and prayed during one of the last days of their churchwide assembly.
Many warned the 4.7-million-member denomination will continue to lose disenfranchised members.
“What had been the teaching of my church has been reduced to personal opinion,” said Catherine Ammlung, a member of the Delaware-Maryland Synod. “[She and others like her] find ourselves not in step any longer in the foundational premises of our church’s teachings.”
Others, such as Allison Guttu of the Metropolitan New York Synod, said her congregation has grown with the involvement of gays.
“Recognizing the gifts of gay and lesbian pastors would encourage more growth,” she said. “This resolution is about allowing people to follow their conscience.”
Emily Eastwood, executive director of Lutherans Concerned, the denomination’s gay caucus, said Friday night that she was “proud to be a Lutheran.”
“Supporters and advocates of full inclusion have longed for this day since the inception of the ELCA, and for many of us what seemed like a lifetime,” she said. “The ELCA has always had gay ministers; now those and all ministers are free to claim who they are and to have the love and support of a lifelong partner, regardless of orientation or gender identity, which is all we ever asked.”
Each of the four resolutions before them concerned some aspect of welcoming homosexuals into all aspects of church life.
The first resolution, which promised that Lutherans respect the “bound consciences” of those who disagree with them, easily passed by 771-230 Friday morning. A fourth resolution, which implements the other three, passed early Friday evening by a 667-307 vote.
“The results will be immediate, deep and for many, profoundly negative,” said Mr. Schwarz, a McLean, Va., layman who as of late Friday was a top candidate for vice president of the ELCA. “I believe the decisions we have taken are wrong.”
Matthew Riak, leader of the Sudanese Christ Lutheran Church in Wyoming, Mich., said the votes meant “that you do not need Africans in this church.”
Saying he represented 114 African immigrant congregations, “The African national congregations may leave this church,” he added. “You care so much for your [gay] brothers and sisters and you forget us.”
His is not the only foreign group to protest the votes. In late July, Bishop Nicholas Tai of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Hong Kong said the votes, if passed, would be “a source of profound embarrassment for the Lutheran Church in Asia.”