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First it was the Episcopalians, now it's the Lutherans. The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, one of the nation's largest Christian churches, may be on the brink of allowing gay clergy.
More than a thousand clergy and lay people will gather in Minneapolis on Monday. They'll be deciding whether to change policy and permit pastors in gay relationships to serve in the ministry.
NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty has our report.
BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: Why, you ask? Why should I listen to another story about gay clergy? I wondered that, too, but then I realized something remarkable has happened. This once incendiary issue has become well, humdrum, and with breathtaking speed, at least for the 4.6 million baptized members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America.
Consider the story of Bradley Schmeling, who pastors St. John's Lutheran Church in Atlanta. Early on, he told his bishop that he was gay, but not in a relationship, which was okay by church rules.
Mr. BRADLEY SCHMELING (Former pastor of St. John's Lutheran Church in Atlanta): In 2004, I met Darin Easler at church, just like your mother wants you to do.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SCHMELING: And our relationship progressed, and it became clear that this was a relationship for life, so I did go and tell the bishop.
HAGERTY: The bishop asked Schmeling to resign. Schmeling's church reacted differently.
Mr. SCHMELING: They all clapped. And their immediate interests were: What was he like? Where is he from? I had to kind of remind them that there would be consequences for the relationship.
HAGERTY: For Schmeling's job and possibly for the church. Soon after, the bishop filed charges against Schmeling in a church court. And in February 2007, the jury said that the policy was unfair, but rules are rules, and Schmeling should be removed from ministry. St. John's kept him on, which was a risky decision. If Schmeling remained in the pulpit, the church could be kicked out of the denomination.
Schmeling's trial ignited a debate that has been smoldering for years. At the national assembly a few months later, the Lutherans passed a resolution saying the bishops did not have to enforce the rule barring gay ministers if they didn't want to.
No one knows how many bishops look the other way, but people on both sides believe there are at least a dozen or two churches with, quote, irregular pastors.
And now, the pro-gay lobby is gaining momentum, less through bomb-throwing than just wearing the conservative opposition down.
Reverend PAULL SPRING (Head; Lutheran Coalition for Reform): Most of our people are, frankly, tired of the struggle. But I don't think we want to give up. I know we don't.
HAGERTY: That's Reverend Paull Spring, who heads the Lutheran Coalition for Reform, a group that opposes the ordination of clergy in openly gay relationships.
Reverend SPRING: There's nothing personal attached to this at all. But it is a biblical concern. What does Holy Scripture teach about marriage, what does it teach about family, what does it teach about sexuality? It's very clear. There is no support within Holy Scripture for this kind of relationship.
HAGERTY: Those wanting gay ministers disagree. They say Jesus was all about including everyone in his work and mission. Now, that disagreement is being put to the test, and it looks as if the liberals have a good chance of winning.
And so conservatives like Paull Spring are already preparing to create a new church within the ELCA, with its own constitution, education system and rules for calling ministers.
Reverend SPRING: So we intend to remain technically within the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, but practically we will become a de facto synod.
HAGERTY: As for Bradley Schmeling, he'll attend the assembly as an observer since he's no longer recognized as a minister. If his side wins, he says he'll apply to be readmitted to the church. And he hopes he'll move out of the spotlight as a national symbol.
Mr. SCHMELING: So I'm kind of looking forward to just slipping back into obscurity and being a regular parish pastor.
HAGERTY: Of course, the 1,000-plus participants in the assembly can vote any way they want, and they could dash Bradley Schmeling's hopes. But even conservatives believe that change is inevitable, if not this year, then at the next assembly in 2011.
Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.
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