In a surprising act of liberalization last week, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) voted to begin ordaining actively gay people as clergy. This decision overturns a long-standing ban on sexually-active gay clergy in the Lutheran communion. Coming on the heels of the American Anglican church's decision to allow additional gay bishops, the Lutheran vote signals that American religious fault lines are being sharply drawn around gay rights.
The ELCA is the largest Lutheran organization in the U.S., with 4.7 million members. For the last eight years, the Lutherans have deliberated over the issue of gay clergy. Until now, the church's policy held that gay and lesbian clergy could be frocked only if they remained celibate. But on Friday, the church's national assembly, meeting in Minneapolis, voted 68 percent in favor of striking down the old policy, and taking a more gay-friendly stance toward clergy. From now on, gay and lesbian pastors in committed same-sex relationships may minister to the Lutheran community.
There are some predictable limits on this vote. No congregation will be forced to hire a gay or lesbian pastor, entirely in line with the church's practice of leaving the choice of ministers to the congregations themselves. And the church stopped short of endorsing same-sex marriages, though it did agree to seek out ways for interested congregations to "recognize, support and hold publicly accountable lifelong, monogamous, same gender relationships."
The Lutherans' decision comes quick on the heels of the American Anglican communion's decision to ordain more gay bishops. The controversy over the election of its first gay bishop, New Hampshire's Gene Robinson, has threatened to cause a total schism within the Episcopal church. In the U.S., these decisions may presage larger changes in the organization of Christian denominations. Says Mark Jordan, a Harvard Divinity School professor, "I think we're coming up on an epic reorganization of religion in the United States. What we're going to see going forward is more and smaller churches, loosely organized and federated around a progressive pole or a conservative pole."
Abroad, the picture is more mixed. Just as conservative African and Latin American clergy are pressuring for schism within the Anglican communion over gay issues, so within the Lutheran church much of the objection to the new policy has come from abroad, where missionaries and conservative theologians have taught a less inclusive theology. Still, Lutherans hope to avoid the kind of divisiveness that has plagued the Anglicans. "It would be tragic if we walked away from one another," said Bishop Mark Hanson, who presided over the vote.