Lutherans on the brink

hissocks_3001Last month the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America voted to roster partnered gay people as clergy. Not everyone in the denomination is happy about this doctrinal change in how the church now treats sex outside of the lifelong union of one man and one woman in matrimony. Among those is a group called Coalition for Reform. Terry noted some funny business in how the Associated Press handled the news of an upcoming meeting of this group and how the same news was handled better at the Washington Times. To add to the coverage, the Washington Post had a big piece that tied together local perspective, the upcoming meeting and the larger membership trends suffered by the ELCA. Here's how it begins:

St. Martin's Evangelical Lutheran Church of Annapolis is a house of worship on the brink. It recently voted to explore leaving the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America because of the denomination's decision last month to allow gay people in committed relationships to serve as clergy.

St. Martin's pastor, the Rev. Gerald Miller, said he isn't sure whether his church will leave the 4.6 million-member ELCA to join another Lutheran denomination.

"We are struggling," said Miller, who wrote a heartfelt letter to his 1,000-member congregation about the issue of gay clergy last month. "We are really struggling."

On Friday, he and 1,200 other conservative Lutherans from across the country will gather gather in an Indianapolis suburb, and many will be considering whether to walk away from the ELCA.

I want to highlight the piece, even though I don't really have any criticism of it, because it's worth showing how much can be packed into one story. We get accurate history about the previous policy on gay clergy (allowed, but had to remain celibate), what the group will actually be considering (not walking away so much as forming a new synod within the church, and how the larger issue has roiled other mainline Protestants. One of the problems facing the conservative Lutherans is that some congregations who oppose the policy will want to leave the ELCA and some will want to remain with the denomination.

And after laying all that out, we learn of ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson's letter in which he somewhat ironically discourages separation from the mother church. That's how you do it, AP! Before you get the response to the planned gathering, you have to explain what the gathering is!

Anyway, reporter Jacqueline Salmon gets some good local flavor in there, including a local meeting earlier this month where conservatives explained why they opposed the change. And there's this key bit of information:

Conservatives who oppose the policy predict that it will hasten the downward membership spiral plaguing the ELCA and most other mainline denominations. In the ELCA, the number of baptized members has decreased 11 percent in the past 20 years.

Since 2001, the percentage of mainline Protestants in the U.S. population has shrunk from about 17 percent to 13 percent, according to the American Religious Identification Survey.

"It's just going to accelerate the trend" in the ELCA, said the Rev. Mark Chavez, executive director of CORE. "Anybody with their eyes open can see that it's going to be trouble."

It's nice to see some follow-up coverage of the fall-out over this recent decision. I imagine the repercussions -- both those favorable to the denomination and those less favorable -- might not materialize for months or years. Hopefully reporters will let us know how this story continues to play out in the years to come.

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