The Lutheran Church can't figure out what to do with gays. The ELCA wants to welcome them as Christians, but chafes when a closeted member reveals their sexuality after being called to ministry. Two years ago, the Central City Lutheran Mission in San Bernardino lost its affiliation because the executive director refused to remove the mission's associate pastor, a lesbian.
This is not only a Lutheran problem, but one affecting the Methodist, Presbyterian and Episcopal churches as well. "The mainline churches are really struggling with this. It is a real rift, and it threatens to tear denominations apart," Philip A. Amerson, former president of Claremont School of Theology, a United Methodist seminary, told me in 2005.
Yesterday the main branch of the Lutheran Church, the ELCA, voted to remove a gay Atlanta pastor from the city's oldest Lutheran congregation. But the Rev. Bradley Schmeling is refusing to go.
"The congregation issued a call to me in 2000 and, as far as we are concerned, that hasn't changed," Schmeling said. "I'm disheartened [the decision] gives the impression the church is more interested in rules than in compassion."
Decisions in the ELCA to strip a pastor of their pulpit are made at the discretion of the synod bishop; there is no national mandate. It's a fickle standard and the reason why the Rev. Jenny Mason lost her job in San Bernardino (Pacifica Synod) and the Rev. Dan Hooper, the openly gay pastor of Hollywood Lutheran (Southwest California Synod), returned to the pulpit in 2002 after being "outed" and spending a decade and a half on hiatus.
Sexuality is one of the most contentious issues in Christianity. And the debate gets more heated as one recedes into smaller organizational units (denomination -- congregation -- Bible study -- family). But I've never understood the formula with which the Lutheran Church has attempted to say it is OK for some but not for others, even though it's really not OK for anyone, except for him ... and her ... except when ...