The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) has opened its ranks to noncelibate gay pastors, welcoming its first seven such ministers in a "rite of reconciliation" on Sunday. They are the largest Christian denomination to take this step, but far from the only one. Are American churches prepared to open themselves up?
Last year, the ELCA voted at its annual convention to allow gay members to be ordained as ministers, so long as they were in committed relationships. This Sunday at St. Mark's Lutheran Church in San Francisco, the first seven of these ministers were welcomed as fully participating members of the clergy. All had already been ordained, but six were unable to serve as full ministers because of the church's rules that gay clergy must be celibate. The seventh was reinstated after having been expelled. Three more such welcome services will follow, two in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, and another in Chicago.
The ELCA is the largest Christian denomination that allows gay ministers, but it is not the only one. The United Church of Christ does so as well. The Episcopal Church (the American arm of the Anglican Church) threatened to break apart seven years ago after the ordination of its first gay bishop. This year, despite continued ruptures in its global communion, the Episcopals instated a lesbian as bishop. Finally, the Presbyterian Church has voted at its conference to ordain gay ministers, but awaits the votes of its individual congregations to confirm.
The decision to allow gay ministers was highly controversial within the ELCA; the church serves 4.6 million members in 10,396 congregations across the country. Of these congregations, nearly 200 have voted to leave the denomination. But ELCA spokespersons point out that such ruptures are extreme and unnecessary. Said Bishop Mark W. Holmerud, who heads the Sierra Pacific Synod, the implications are simple: “The effect of [the gay ministers] being brought onto our roster is they will now be part of our national database of pastors who are available for service in any of our 10,500 churches." Congregations can choose what ministers to hire—or not to hire.
But there is hope that, over time, more of them may realize that they want to hire a gay or lesbian minister. Megan Rohr, one of the pastors welcomed in the service on Sunday, said of the ceremony's impact, “It’s an invitation to join us in the pews every single Sunday, where not a single one of these pastors will care if you agree with us or if you think our families are appropriate. We’ll serve you communion, we’ll pray with you and we’ll visit you in the hospital.”