Long perceived as a “moderate” member of mainline Protestantism, the recent decision by America’s largest Lutheran body to allow for homosexual relations and approve of the ordination of gays and lesbians came as a shock in some quarters.
But seasoned observers of the 5.5 million-member Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) registered little surprise at the action; the repercussions that these decisions will have on American Lutheranism and mainline Protestantism are far less predictible. The ELCA’s decision concluded a long struggle in the denomination over the contentious issue as delegates voted by 559–451 to approve a measure allowing those involved in “publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships” to serve as official ministers.
Many observers drew parallels between the ELCA action and the 2003 decision of the Episcopal Church to consecrate a homosexual bishop and the ensuing split this caused between the global Anglican Communion and the American denomination. But because of the more autonomous nature of Lutheran churches, the recent decision is less likely to cause a crisis in global Lutheranism. Yet the new stance of the ELCA, along with that of other Lutheran bodies in Europe supporting gay rights in the church, is increasingly clashing with the traditional positions of Lutheran churches in Africa, Latin America and Asia. Since the August decision, a number of clergy and members announced their decision to leave the body.
In the weeks after the event, churches have declared themselves to be out of communion with the denomination. Ethnic congregations—mostly black, Hispanic and Asian—were opposed to this change all along and several observers have predicted that they may be among the first to leave. A late September meeting in Indianapolis will draw many of the dissenters to deliberate about their next course of action. The likely result will be a new non-geographical synod (or diocese) for traditionalist churches.
Departing congregations may join one of the newly created conservative bodies, such as Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ (LCMC). The LCMC, a “post-denominational” body allowing for dual affiliations, may be particularly appealing to congregations hesitant or unable to completely break ranks with the ELCA. But there may not be the protracted battles over property as in the Episcopal Church, since the ELCA allows departing congregations to leave with their buildings if they can get a two-thirds vote from their members to do so.
However, in polarized congregations, dissenters may face legal and denominational battles. Because of the moderate, “middle American” reputation of the ELCA among mainline Protestant churches, the recent decision may push other liberal denominations, such as the United Methodist Church and the Presbyterian Church (USA) (which have recently narrowly defeated gay rights measures of their own) to press further on such issues. There is some speculation that the church’s involvement with dialogues and other forms of cooperation with Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox and the more conservative Lutheran ChurchMissouri Synod may be adversely affected by the decision.