The mood was somber after the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America voted to allow "life-long, monogamous, publicly accountable" homosexual clergy on its leadership rosters. Presiding Bishop Mark S. Hanson called on voting members, who had just spent days in grueling debate over blessing same-sex unions and homosexual clergy, to pray with one another and sing a hymn. But despite the gestures of unity, the church will fracture as local congregations now decide whether or not they will allow openly homosexual clergy, bless gay unions, and continue to be a part of the ELCA.
Hanson's voice broke as he spoke of the week's proceedings in his final address, but Robert Benne, voting member with the Virginian synod, said he "felt exhilarated that now at least we were clear about where the church was going." A lay member of his church in Virginia, Benne said he will strive to keep his church on the traditional path, and his church will no longer donate to the ELCA or to its synod if it embraces the ELCA decision.
This question of financial support is a grave one, since the ELCA lost 76,000 members in 2008 and its budget shrank to $67 million this year, down from $81 million in 2005. The debate reflected this crisis, as one young member warned the ELCA that young people were not active in the church because they found it hypocritical to bar gays from entering into loving relationships.
But others say it will only decimate the church as conservative churches withdraw their support. A 2005 ELCA report found that only 22 percent of ELCA members favored blessing gay unions or ordaining practicing homosexuals, and 57 percent opposed the changes. LutheranCORE, an organization that opposes the changes, argues that forsaking tradition will undermine ELCA's ecumenical and multicultural relationships, since many Hispanic and African immigrant congregations are openly opposed to the changes.
Some congregations already have defied previous ELCA policy by blessing same-sex unions and ordaining openly gay clergy. Hanson pleaded with conservative congregations to consider the magnitude of their decision-and the diminishing of the body-if they decide to leave. But conservative congregations may rightly ask, who abandoned whom?