Dissident Lutherans claim bullying over homosexuality
A decision to ordain actively homosexual clergy has caused deep fissures in the nation’s largest Lutheran church group, with some traditional Lutherans saying they have been subjected to threats and retaliation as they consider breaking away.
Several disaffected members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) say the decision made at the church’s national convention in Minneapolis in August could prompt a major exodus from one of America’s biggest Protestant denominations.
“I wouldn’t even begin to tell you how many thousands [of calls] I’ve gotten,” said Paull Spring, chairman of Lutheran Coalition for Renewal, or CORE, a national coalition based on traditional values. His group said last month that it cannot remain inside the 4.7-million-member ELCA and will form a new synod. He is not alone. “I am receiving every single week dozens of phone calls, emails, from pastors of the largest Lutheran churches in ELCA,” said the Rev. Walter Kallestad, senior pastor of Community Church of Joy in Glendale, Ariz., who left the synod after having been “rostered” as a minister with the ELCA for 31 years. “I’ve answered hundreds [. . . ] from congregations looking to transition out of the ELCA.”
For reasons of church structure — Lutheran congregations retain their property as long as they are affiliated with a Lutheran synod — the fallout from the ELCA’s decision isn’t likely to lead to the kind of court fights that followed the U.S. Episcopal Church’s 2003 ordination of an openly homosexual bishop.
But the splits within the ELCA, which is more than twice the Episcopal Church’s size, are getting ugly in their own way. Pastors taking their churches out of the ELCA are making charges of “unethical, immoral and in some cases, illegal” acts by bishops and other officials, Mr. Kallestad said.
“I’m talking to some pastors and leaders from many states around the nation, whose [ELCA] bishops are becoming very hostile,” Mr. Kallestad said.
The Rev. Mark Gehrke, of Faith Lutheran Church in Moline, Ill., said that “if you do not agree with the direction of the ELCA, you are [. . . ] bullied or ostracized or threatened. The threat has been to even remove me and suspend me from ministry,” he said.
In early September, he said, he was leading meetings and
“They are afraid for their jobs,” he said. “They are afraid of standing against the church, the bishops.”
In November, his church voted not to leave the ELCA but to compromise by joining Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ, an inde-
Lutheran churches are leaving across the nation, not just in the Midwest. “I, too, have talked with both lay and clergy people around the country who tell some pretty horrific stories,” said the Rev. Mark Graham, of St. John Evangelical Lutheran Church in Roanoke, Va. These are stories of “duplicity and deceit and outright mean-spirited action — even illegal action.”
front of the entire congregation.”
Mr. Gehrke said other pastors have been bullied into silence.
“In Illinois, I’m one of the only few pastors that have taken a stand,” he said, noting there are others who are too frightened to openly criticize the denomination’s position on homosexuality. pendent conservative Lutheran association.
The ELCA denies threatening or bullying anybody.
“I would deny that completely,” said Bishop Gary Wollersheim of the ELCA’s Northern Illinois Synod. “That’s not happening in northern Illi- nois. I’m sure that’s not happening anywhere in the country.”
More than that, the bishop said, the denomination has taken the opposite approach toward those who back traditional sexual morality.
“I have done the exact opposite,” Bishop Wollersheim said. “I have assured clergy, roster leaders, that hold different opinions on the decisions that [neither] the synod nor I will discriminate against them in any way. The last thing that I would do as pastor of the synod would [be to] bully somebody or threaten them.”
Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson, the head of the ELCA, also denies that the synod is engaging in intimidation and questions reports of any split.
“I think some of the characterization of polarization is a simplification,” Bishop Hanson said. “To be brutally honest, it seems to me media can only tell stories about polarization and fragmentation.”
The head bishop recently met with subordinate bishops from across the country, and told The Washington Times that he is not aware of “any allegations” of improper or illegal acts by ELCA officials — or even that an exodus is taking place.
Through the end of October, the church estimates that “50 of the ELCA’s 10,396 congregations have taken first votes to leave,” said ELCA spokesman John Brooks in an e-mail. “Five such votes have failed.”
To leave the ELCA, a church must conduct two votes, 90 days apart, with both votes attaining a two-thirds majority.
Bishop Hanson also questions
Inner turmoil: The chapel at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Gettysburg, Pa. is seen through a cross-shaped window.