When Lutherans split

hissocks_300The Episcopal Church has less than half the membership of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. But the former gets much more media coverage than the ELCA. But both are experiencing division under similar circumstances. Both churches have lost significant numbers of members in recent years, with congregations occasionally deciding to leave as a unit. And the problems in both churches deal with how the denomination interprets Scripture. The big fissures have been sparked by dramatic changes in church doctrine on sexuality. The Episcopal Church's split has been covered extensively by the media. When the ELCA voted to ordain homosexuals in committed, monogamous, lifelong relationships this past August, it resulted in the departure of more congregations. Other congregations decided to simply withhold funds to the national church body while they decided whether to leave a church body that has changed its doctrine.

Here's a sampling of headlines from the last couple of months: "Lutheran church in Roanoke County votes to split from association," "Large ELCA Congregation Votes to Leave the Denomination," and "Minneapolis Lutheran church will leave ELCA." We see these stories being covered throughout the country, usually in the local press.

When Lutheran CORE -- a group that opposes the doctrinal changes that have been made in recent years -- met in Indianapolis to discuss how to respond to the August vote for gay clergy in relationships, that resulted in more national coverage. And now we're seeing national coverage again as Lutheran CORE steps up its efforts. The Associated Press had a great report that clearly and concisely laid out the facts of the situation. It explained how many congregations had left, how many had initiated the process, and discussed the national church body's financial woes caused, in part, by a drop in funds from less-than-pleased congregations:

The split over gay clergy within the country's largest Lutheran denomination has prompted a conservative faction to begin forming a new Lutheran church body separate from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Leaders of Lutheran CORE said Wednesday that a working group would immediately begin drafting a constitution and taking other steps to form the denomination, with hopes to have it off the ground by next August.

''There are many people within the ELCA who are very unhappy with what has happened,'' said the Rev. Paull Spring, chairman of Lutheran CORE and a retired ELCA bishop from State College, Pa.

The main question I had after reading the report dealt with the property. The truth of the matter is that property disputes tend to be more heated than doctrinal disputes. Denominational corporations are usually willing to spend quite a bit of money and energy to keep property when congregations or dioceses leave a church body. We've seen a lot of coverage of this aspect of the Episcopal Church's woes (they're winning some battles and losing others) as well as in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). But what about the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America?

Julia Duin is on the case at the Washington Times. After laying out the cause of the schism, she looks at the finances of the denomination, why Lutheran CORE is not joining with any other Lutheran group and whether there will be property disputes:

"This news from Lutheran CORE was expected," [ELCA spokesman John Brooks] said. "We know it takes hard work to organize a new church body. . . . There has always been a place in the ELCA for all people despite our differences on various issues."

The ELCA will not sue a departing congregation, he added, as long as it joins another Lutheran church body.

Despite the fact that the ELCA is significantly larger than the Episcopal Church, the media have shown less interest in the denomination's doctrinal battles. Both the Associated Press and Washington Times picked up on the significance of the cause of both church body's plights. Hopefully we will see continued good coverage of the matter.

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