NEW BRIGHTON, Minn. – The split over gay clergy within the country's largest Lutheran denomination has prompted a conservative faction to begin forming a new Lutheran church body separate from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
Leaders of Lutheran CORE said Wednesday that a working group would immediately begin drafting a constitution and taking other steps to form the denomination, with hopes to have it off the ground by next August.
"There are many people within the ELCA who are very unhappy with what has happened," said the Rev. Paull Spring, chairman of Lutheran CORE and a retired ELCA bishop from State College, Pa.
At its annual convention in Minneapolis in August, ELCA delegates voted to lift a ban that had prohibited sexually active gay and lesbian pastors from serving as clergy. The new policy, expected to take effect in April, will allow such individuals to lead ELCA churches as long as they can show that they are in committed, lifelong relationships.
Opponents, led by Lutheran CORE, said that decision is in direct contradiction to Scripture.
At a September convention, Lutheran CORE members voted to spend a year considering whether to form a new Lutheran denomination. However, its leaders said Wednesday that a heavy volume of requests for an alternative from disenfranchised congregations and churchgoers prompted them to hasten the process.
John Brooks, spokesman at the ELCA's Chicago-based headquarters, said Lutheran CORE's move was not unexpected. He expressed hope that church members would ultimately opt to stay in the denomination as it strives to be "a place for all people despite any differences we might have on any issues."
Neither Brooks nor Lutheran CORE leaders would guess what kind of numbers a new denomination might attract. Lutheran CORE leaders believe there is deep opposition to the new policy among rank-and-file churchgoers, but said some may not be willing to actually depart the ELCA over it.
Brooks said the ELCA has not seen significant departures yet, but he cautioned it's too soon after the August decision to read much into that.
So far, he said, five congregations nationwide have voted to leave the ELCA. More have started the process, with 87 taking a first vote to leave the denomination. Of those, 28 did not achieve the two-thirds vote necessary to leave the ELCA. In all, there are 10,300 ELCA churches in the country with about 4.7 million members.
If a congregation passes the two-thirds bar on its first vote, it must then wait 90 days before taking a second, final vote that also requires a two-thirds majority.
Other Christian denominations have seen factions split off over the gay clergy debate. In 2003, the 2 million-member Episcopal Church consecrated its first openly gay bishop, a move that alienated American Episcopalians from its worldwide parent, the Anglican Communion. The divide has led to the formation of the more conservative Anglican Church in North America, which claims 100,000 members.
In addition to helping birth a new Lutheran church body, Lutheran CORE leaders said their organization would continue its recent move toward creating a free-floating synod within the ELCA for congregations opposed to the liberalized policy but who don't want to leave the denomination.
Lutheran CORE has also urged supportive congregations to stop paying so-called mission support funds that help supplement the ELCA's operating budget. Last weekend, ELCA leaders reduced their 2010 operating budget by $7.7 million, a move Brooks said was motivated mainly by the U.S. economy but also in part by an expected drop in the mission funds.
Ryan Schwarz, a Lutheran CORE member from Washington, D.C., is charged with leading the organizing effort for the new denomination. He said a committee would begin work immediately on drafting a constitution, building a budget and other steps needed to form the yet-unnamed denomination. They hope to have it ready to go by next August, he said.
"Many of us have spent years now struggling to call the ELCA to remain faithful to the Orthodox Christianity of the last 2,000 years," Schwarz said. "While this is of course a wrenching decision, there is also a sense of hope in refocusing on our true mission, which is evangelizing the Lutheran faith."