Nothing to see here, move along

Last year, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America voted to change its doctrine to allow gay clergy in committed sexual relationships. The Associated Press ran a story about one of the consequences of that vote:

Seven pastors who work in the San Francisco Bay area and were barred from serving in the nation's largest Lutheran group because of a policy that required gay clergy to be celibate are being welcomed into the denomination.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America will add six of the pastors to its clergy roster at a service at St. Mark's Lutheran Church in San Francisco on Sunday. Another pastor who was expelled from the church, but was later reinstated, will participate in the service.

The group is among the first gay, bisexual or transgender Lutheran pastors to be reinstated or added to the rolls of the ELCA since the organization voted last year to lift the policy requiring celibacy.

Although I'm not a member of the ELCA, I am Lutheran and I keep a Google News alert out for the term "Lutheran." This means I get tons of news about the ELCA. And far and away the biggest story I've seen over the last ten months has been case after case of Lutheran congregations leaving the ELCA following this vote.

It's only been 10-plus months since the vote was taken but I'd estimate that I've seen reports of hundreds of churches voting to leave the ELCA since then. This is noteworthy because the process to leave is somewhat complicated. I think there may be different rules for different congregations (depending on which of the three church bodies they were part of when the ELCA formed) but generally the rule is that you need to take two votes separated by over three months' time. These votes need to pass by a supermajority of two-thirds. And then after you have these votes, I think the ELCA has to officially release you. Here was one case where they refused. I've heard of congregations that have failed to get the margin by a few votes. Rather than fight the process, the majority of the congregation might just form a new church. Others have just begun the process of discussing whether to leave. Others have simply decided to just stop giving money to the ELCA. And some have voted on whether to leave and decided to stay.

Now there are 10,000 congregations in the ELCA, so the departure of hundreds of congregations -- and thousands of individual members -- should be kept in perspective. In my mind, the full fall-out won't be known for a decade or more. But the departure of what I estimate to be several hundred congregations in only 10 months is newsworthy. Some of these are the largest congregations in the denomination. You can get a nice rundown of how congregations are voting here. It's probably very similar to what the Episcopal Church experienced in the last few years -- the departure of key congregations and forming of new alliances.

But this story didn't find room for that part of the story or the feelings of those who wish the vote to change doctrine had gone differently. This is the entirety of what was said about the exodus:

A small number of congregations have voted to leave the ELCA in response to the August vote.

See! Nothing but lollipops and roses over in the ELCA. There is nothing to see here. Move along.

Rather than decide what makes a schism noteworthy and what makes it "small," better to just do the shoe-leather reporting of explaining how many congregations have voted to leave, how many are withholding funds, and so on. Readers can decide what those numbers mean about the effect of last year's vote. The story began with the reinstatement of seven GLBT pastors. That's also not a large number. But the significance is important. And it's significant not just to those that support the ordination of clergy in committed gay sexual relationships but to Lutherans who hold to the historic teaching of the Christian church as well.

Other than that, however, the story is a good write-up of an important event. And the AP has actually been one of the outlets to cover the exodus of congregations, even if that story is ongoing and deserves more coverage in the future.

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