Leaders of the nation’s biggest Lutheran denomination voted Friday to allow gay people in committed relationships to serve as clergy in the church, making it one of the largest Christian denominations in the country to significantly open the pulpit to gays.
Previously, only celibate gays were permitted to serve as clergy in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, a denomination of 4.8 million members.
But delegates to a church assembly voted 559-451 to allow gays in “life-long, monogamous” relationships to serve as clergy and professional lay leaders in the church.
The vote is the culmination of a years-long process in the ELCA and was accompanied by plenty of emotion at the convention in Minneapolis. After standing in long lines to reach microphones during debates that extended all day, some delegates shook and others cried as they expressed their opposition or support of the measure.
Quoting the Bible and denomination founder Martin Luther, delegates sought to place the decision within their interpretation of their Lutheran faith.
“We live today with an understanding of homosexuality that did not exist in Jesus’ time and culture,” Tim Mumm, a lay delegate from Wisconsin and supporter of Lutherans Concerned, a gay-rights organization, said during the debate. “We are responding to something that the writers of Scripture could not have understood.”
But others said the recommendations weaken the biblical standards of the church.
“As Luther taught us, Scripture does not have a wax nose,” said the Rev. Ryan Mills, a Louisiana delegate. “It cannot be twisted into anything we want it to say. But that’s just what we’re doing with these following recommendations.”
Conservatives tried to derail the vote, losing a ballot that would have required a supermajority of two-thirds to approve the proposal. They lost a similar vote earlier in the week.
Some critics of the proposal predicted its passage could cause individual congregations to leave the ELCA, which is what occurred to the 2 million-member Episcopal Church when it consecrated an openly gay bishop in 2003. Last month, Episcopalians voted to make gay people eligible for any ordained ministry.
Most mainline Protestant churches are struggling to balance what many view as biblical injunctions against the practice of homosexuality with the country’s burgeoning gay-rights movement. But none has gone as far as the Episcopalians and, now, the ELCA. Among the major mainline denominations, leaders of the Presbyterian Church (USA) recently defeated a proposal to ordain openly gay pastors, but with a much narrower margin than in previous votes. And United Methodist church leaders faced an emotional debate last year when they upheld their ban on openly gay clergy.
“I really believe … what we are about to do will split the church,” said ELCA delegate John Sang, of Ohio, during the debate.
In essence, the vote puts gays under the same set of rules that have governed heterosexual clergy. They are required to be monogamous if married and to abstain from sexual relations if they are single. Individual congregations would not be compelled to take on pastors who are in same-sex relationships.