So a gay pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America faces a disciplinary hearing. Not because he's gay, but because he's not celibate. The denomination has permitted homosexual clergy since 1991, and debates have raged within the church body since then over whether to bless homosexual unions or permit gay clergy to have sexual relationships. I'm surprised the story hasn't gotten more coverage, considering how obsessed the media are over the Episcopal Church's significant issues with homosexuality and how to interpret Scripture. The thing is that the two stories are closer than they may even seem. And of course both denomination's stories are about much more than sex, though you wouldn't know that from the coverage. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is in full altar and pulpit fellowship with the Episcopal Church. Since they signed Called to Common Mission in 2001, members of either denomination can receive sacraments at the other. There is no more intimate relationship between two church bodies -- one they're still getting used to. In light of what's happening with the Episcopal Church, you think that their cozy relationship might be mentioned.
This case, which provides a prime hook for looking at larger issues facing mainline churches, unfortunately is not getting enough coverage and definitely not enough significant coverage. I would like to nominate this piece from a local television station for worst story because it combines a remarkable lack of information with an Alanis Morissette-level misappropriation of the word ironic:
On Friday, an openly-gay Lutheran pastor in Atlanta was the focus of a four-day church trial.
Pastor Brad, as Pastor Bradley Schmeling is called, is an extremely popular figure at St. John's Lutheran Church, where the congregation showed their support on Thursday evening.
Ironically, it was upon the trials of the faithful that the Lutheran Church itself was built. But the church's trial of Pastor Schmeling, which begins on Friday, will test the very foundation of the denomination.
Lord, have mercy. Ironically? Trials of the faithful?
Let's look at the other problem with this -- and almost all other -- stories about the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The word Lutheran is used without once explaining that the problems facing this denomination are not shared by all Lutherans. Indeed, while the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America struggles over whether practicing homosexuals should be ordained, it is not the only Lutheran church out there.
There's the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (of which my congregation is a member), the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, the Evangelical Lutheran Synod, the American Association of Lutheran Churches, the Apostolic Lutheran Church of America, the Association of Free Lutheran Congregations, the Church of the Lutheran Brethren of America, the Church of the Lutheran Confession, and many others.
Whenever the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America does something newsworthy, many outlets refer to a decision by "the Lutheran Church" without realizing that the vast majority of Lutheran denominations in America share very little in common with ELCA other than a portion of its name.
I recognize it's confusing and frustrating, but the fact is that there have been significant differences here for decades, at least. And no matter how much the ELCA may revise its beliefs, it's probably going to keep the name Lutheran. Reporters need to get used to it.
Alan Cooperman had a story in Saturday's Washington Post about the case. He wrote an eloquent story about how the pastor's congregation feels about the trial. Many people were quoted about their feelings -- all are supportive of their pastor against their church body's stated practice. It's a really nice story about the congregation, beginning with a foot-washing service the pastor held:
It is the latest in a series of similar trials in several mainline Protestant denominations, where growing numbers of congregations are installing gay men and lesbians as pastors despite rules against non-celibate homosexuals in the pulpit.
The prosecutions -- which follow procedures similar to those of civil courts, including testimony by witnesses for both sides -- have become one of the most emotional fronts in the battle over sexuality and scripture within American Christianity.
Schmeling's flock at St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church, a 135-year-old congregation on the edge of Atlanta's historic Druid Hills neighborhood, is strongly backing him. After the foot-washing service Thursday evening, members signed up for a continuous vigil in their sanctuary. Some wrote prayers on multicolored strips of cloth that are to be woven into a tapestry.
But no one is presented to make the case for the church's position and no one is presented to make the case against practicing homosexual clergy period. Perhaps future stories can put the Schmeling case in context of what's facing mainline denominations.