A no-big-deal church split

I always find it curious how the media cover the Episcopal Church so differently than other denominations in America. Remember all of the stories in recent years about dioceses and parishes leaving, the property disputes and realignments? Well, another church group is facing something similar, and for related reasons. Last year the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America voted to roster gay clergy who are in committed sexual relationships. Not just the vote but the reasoning behind it -- which more traditional Lutherans viewed as an unacceptable rejection of Scripture as the source and norm of doctrine -- led a similar exodus of parishioners and congregations. At least I think it was similar, but the coverage is making me wonder if it was wildly different. Just for example, the Minneapolis Star Tribune downplayed the departures. Here's the headline:

Gay clergy debate: Lutherans bowed but not broken

A major fracture in the nation's largest Lutheran denomination over gay clergy hasn't materialized, though painful spiritual wounds remain.

So I guess I'm curious why the Episcopal Church story was such a big deal and this isn't. Maybe it's the numbers.

The ELCA is a much larger denomination than the Episcopal Church, even if it gets only a tiny fraction of the news coverage. The ECUSA has just over 2 million members while the ELCA has over 4.6 million. The Episcopal Church has 110 dioceses and 7100 parishes. The ELCA has only 65 synods (subdivisions) but around 10,300 congregations.

Most media reports tell the story that only 200 congregations had left by the beginning of this month with a hundred or so other congregations int he process. That does not include congregations like this 1,700-member congregation in Iowa that just this week fell two votes shy of the two-thirds majority needed on the second vote (held 90 days after the first vote, mind you). So the congregation will remain ELCA but I wonder if the majority of the congregation that wishes not to be a part of the ELCA will simply form a new congregation or decide that everything's cool now. I have no idea.

Okay, now when the Episcopal Church went through its unpleasantness, I think four dioceses left (San Joaquin, Quincy, Pittsburgh and Fort Worth). Or didn't leave, depending on your interpretation of exactly what happened. But the two denominations are organized very differently. How many Episcopal parishes left? I'm not entirely sure. This U.S. News & World Report story from 2009 says that the official count from the Episcopal Church is 83 out of 7,100. That strikes me as a low number, though. Anyone know if that count is accurate?

But let's say U.S. News is right. That means that, as a percentage of the total number of congregations, more Lutheran congregations left in less than a year since the big gay vote than Episcopal congregations left in six years after that church body consecrated a gay bishop. So that doesn't explain the disparity.

Now, I'm not saying that the departure of 200 congregations in under a year is huge, although it would be the news of the year in my church body, which has around 6,500 congregations. But the disparity in coverage does seem odd to me. Let me know if you have any thoughts about why the coverage might differ. I'm still thinking that 83 count must be too low. Maybe the "official" count doesn't include the many dozens of congregations included in those diocesan departures.

Anyway, since we're on the topic, this gives me a chance to look at a story a reader sent in weeks ago from the Lehigh Valley Express Times. It's kind of weird.

St. John's Lutheran Church of Easton may become the first Christian church in the city to offer the equivalent of a marriage ceremony for same-gendered couples.

Pastor Susan Ruggles said she would like to discuss with the congregation the possibility of offering "blessing services," which is essentially the same as a marriage ceremony, but without the legal recognition.

The reader who submitted the story thought it a bid odd that the reporter would quote the pastor talking about her proposal without actually interviewing any congregational members about their reaction.

Then we get this bit:

Last year, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America ruled it would leave it up to individual churches whether to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies.

I'm not entirely sure that's true. In fact, I think it's not true.

The piece then goes on to get the perspective of a sectarian gay advocacy group before "balancing" the piece out with comments from a secular gay advocacy group with no connection to the church. That person suggests that the Lutherans should make sure they call their commitment ceremony -- the one that hasn't been discussed with the congregation itself, apparently -- marriage even if the law doesn't recognize same-sex marriage.

And there are no quotes from the opposition. But other than that, it's a very accurate and balanced story.

There will be many more stories about these larger issues as a new Lutheran denomination -- the North American Lutheran Church -- was born on Friday. Let us know if you see any particularly good or bad coverage, please.

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