(UNDATED) The dilemma for conservatives in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America could be summed up in the familiar refrain from The Clash’s punk-rock tune: “Should I Stay or Should I Go?”
The answer seems to be: Yes — and no.
Many conservatives are deeply unhappy that the ELCA, the nation’s largest Lutheran denomination, voted in August to lift its ban on noncelibate gay and lesbian clergy. The 4.8 million-member church also voted to allow congregations to “recognize, support and hold publicly accountable life-long, monogamous, same-gender relationships.”
Conservatives say the ELCA’s confessions — or statements of faith — clearly call for fidelity to Scripture, which clearly condemns homosexuality.
So, next week (Sept. 25-26), a conservative network of clergy and lay Lutherans plans to gather and hatch plans to “reconfigure” Lutheranism in North America.
The leaders of Lutheran CORE (Coalition for Reform) are not encouraging fellow believers to bolt from the ELCA for a more conservative denomination, but neither do they want to remain part of one that has “fallen into heresy,” they say.
Thus, CORE is laying plans for a “free-standing synod” that would include current members of the ELCA along with others that have exited, or plan to exit, from the denomination.
“There are lots of congregations that are going to leave, lots of traditionalist congregations that are going to stay, and lots that have already left,” said Ryan Schwarz of Washington, a member of CORE’s steering committee. “We want to create a churchly structure that gathers all those categories.”
About 1,200 people have registered for CORE’s summit in Indianapolis, according to organizers. The guest list grew so large, in fact, that the venue was changed from a Lutheran church to a bigger Roman Catholic parish nearby.
“It is wonderfully ironic that Lutherans who started 500 years ago as a movement to reform the Roman Catholic Church would now return to a Catholic church to re-form themselves,” said CORE’s director, the Rev.
Mark Chavez of Landisville, Pa.
Participants at the Indiana meeting are expected to draft bylaws for their new organization, develop fiscal plans and begin reaching out to other “compatible” denominations.
The free-standing synod, should the idea be accepted, would hire and train its own clergy, redirect donations from ELCA headquarters to CORE, plant churches and support missionaries, Chavez said. Some members will disassociate from their local (geographic) synods and stop participating in the ELCA’s biennial assemblies. But others who are part of conservative synods that are not expected to hire gay and lesbian clergy may choose to remain part of the ELCA, he added.
Chavez compared the proposed free-standing synod to a Venn diagram in which two circles intersect and partly overlap. In this case, the two circles are CORE and the ELCA, with plenty of Lutherans in the overlap who are members of both.
There is some precedent for a free-standing synod; one of the ELCA’s synods is home to Lutherans of Slovakian descent, not regional like the other 64. There was similar talk of creating a free-standing synod about a decade ago, when the ELCA approved a full communion agreement with the Episcopal Church, said the Rev. Michael Cooper-White, dean of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg in Pennsylvania. The issue at that time was differing views on the authority of bishops, he added.
In some ways, CORE’s proposal mirrors an attempt by conservative Anglicans and Episcopalians last year to create a new North American province based on theological compatibility rather than geographic proximity. Those conservatives, too, were upset at their denomination’s changing acceptance of homosexuality.
But ELCA leaders don’t foresee their denomination facing the rancorous — and expensive — splits Episcopalians have endured. For now, they are taking a “wait and see” approach to the new synod, said ELCA spokesman John Brooks, and still consider CORE members part of the national church.
“We’re interested in seeing how a free-standing synod takes shape, it’s really hard to know,” he said. “We’ve had groups formed within the ELCA gathered around certain topics or issues as long as the church has been around. We’re hoping that people will recognize that (the ELCA) is much more than one topic, one issue, one decision.”
Meanwhile, some conservative Lutherans think a free-standing synod plan doesn’t go far enough. Robert Benne, director of the Center for Religion and Society at ELCA-affiliated Roanoke College in Virginia, said conservatives should strike out on their own.
“If we could generate enough enthusiasm and momentum about this vision… I could see it becoming a separate church in due time,” Benne said. “But we’re all cautious about starting a new splinter group.”
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