On August 21, the national assembly of the 4.6 million-member Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) voted to allow the ordination of non-celibate gay and lesbian clergy. The resolution was passed by a 55 percent majority.
Earlier in the week the membrs had prepared for this vote by approving a measure that reduced the requirements for changing church policy from a two-thirds vote to a simple majority. Without that change, the resolution would have failed as before.
Gay-supportive Lutherans had long worked toward this end. For more than a decade and a half, the Lutheran Church has distributed materials on human sexuality and varieties of Bible interpretation, urging congregations to study the materials carefully. They were probably the first accurate discussion of sexuality and Bible interpretation that many church members had encountered and they clearly had at least some impact on members' attitudes.
We do, after all, know more about sexuality than people did two thousand years ago, and in the last two hundred years have learned a great deal about how to interpret the original significance of various biblical texts.
The assembly memberx also approved a social statement that called on Lutheran congregations to "welcome, care for, and support" gay and lesbian couples. That in itself is a strong indication of church attitudes, especially by its inclusion of the word "support."
The new church policy does not apply to all gay clergy, only those in "lifelong, monogamous relationships." In practice this will mean it will prohibit all publicly noticeable sexual behavior outside of the relationship, although there may be a certain amount of winking at occasional straying so long as it does not become open and notorious.
The Lutherans thus follow the lead of other Protestant churches such as the Unitarians, the United Church of Christ, and the Episcopal Church in allowing gay clergy. But the Lutherans differ from those other denominations in that they are generally regarded as less liberal than the others, and therefore the policy change has broad significance.
It is also important to note that Lutherans are strongest in the Midwest, the "heartland of America," whereas the Unitarians and United Church of Christ (once the Congregational Church) are particularly strong in New England-where most states have recently approved gay civil marriage. Is it significant that the Iowa Supreme Court recently voted unanimously to approve gay marriage? Probably.
Despite the fact that dissenting congregations are free not to accept openly gay clergy, there were vigorous dissents from conservatives. One man told The New York Times the new policy made him sick at his stomach, suggesting an almost phobic reaction to homosexuality itself rather than a mere religious difference. And one female pastor criticized the statement as contrary to the "Word of God," which seems ironic given that the Apostle Paul in "the same Word of God" said that women should be silent in church. Obviously there is some picking and choosing by Bible literalists of which verses one wishes to honor-as there always is.
As in the Episcopal Church, some Lutherans may choose to leave the ELCA, either to affiliate with the more conservative 2.6 million-member Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod or to join some other conservative denomination. Their departure will make the existing ELCA even more gay-friendly.
The policy shift also makes the ELCA more attractive to gays and lesbians (and their supporters), so some people may join or rejoin the church, making up some of the loss from the departure of any conservatives.
The ELCA shift leaves the United Methodists and Presbyterians USA as the major moderate denominations that do not afford gays and lesbians equality. As America slowly moves in a more gay-accepting direction and with continuing efforts by gays and their supporters in those churches, that will change in time.