The Atlanta pastor at the heart of the homosexual clergy debate in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has returned to the pulpit. And the Atlanta congregation is ecstatic.
A day after the nation's largest Lutheran denomination voted to encourage its bishops to practice "restraint" in disciplining gay ministers who are in "faithful" same-sex relationships, St. John's Lutheran Church – Atlanta's oldest Lutheran church – celebrated Sunday the continuing pastorship of the Rev. Bradley Schmeling.
Earlier this year, Schmeling, who announced that he found a lifelong gay companion, was ordered to be removed immediately from the clergy roster. The order by the Committee on Appeals overruled an earlier decision by a disciplinary committee which said Schmeling should be allowed to remain on the clergy roster until after ELCA's biennial churchwide assembly, Aug. 6-12. The committee also suggested that ELCA reinstate gay clergy who were removed or resigned because they were in a same-sex "lifelong partnership."
Despite the removal, Schmeling refused to leave St. John's and said he planned to continue to follow his call in ministry there.
Furthermore, although the gay clergy debate was expected to come up in 2009, Schmeling was a major part of the push at this year's assembly to lift the ban on non-celibate homosexual clergy.
Although a vote last Friday fell short of approving a change to the current clergy policy, the assembly voted 538 to 431 the next day to pray for, urge, and encourage bishops to refrain from disciplining people and congregations who call qualified leaders in "chaste and faithful" same-gender relationships to ELCA's professional rosters. It also urged the same restraint on leaders who are already on the official rosters and in committed same-sex relationships.
Regarding Saturday's passed resolution, ELCA's presiding bishop, the Rev. Mark S. Hanson, highlighted the words "prays, urges, and encourages" as "words of counsel" for synods and bishops considering what actions to take when confronted with non-celibate gay clergy.
"They are not words that change the standards of the church … or the guidelines for discipline," he said. "But they reflect the mind of this assembly as it seeks to give counsel to the leaders of this church."
Still, conservatives say the vote contradicts church policy and allows gay clergy to ignore the standards of the church.
"Any time you start ignoring God's word on matters, you better watch out because you're in dangerous territory," said the Rev. Mark Chavez, director of the conservative Word Alone Network, according to The Chicago Tribune.
Jaynan Clark Egland, president of Word Alone Network, called it a double standard for discipline.
"I don't know as a Christian, as a pastor and as a parent, what really would be worse – a church with no biblical standards to govern our ministry or standards we don't intend to enforce," said Egland. "To refrain from discipline in the home is bad parenting, but we're about to do so in the Christ's church."
The assembly decided to postpone a more concrete decision on gay clergy until 2009, when the Task Force on Studies of Sexuality is expected to propose a social statement on human sexuality based on responses from congregants across the denomination collected in a comprehensive study.
Still, Schmeling praised the latest decision by the assembly, calling it a "crack in the dam," according to The Associated Press.
Schmeling will continue to pastor St. John's although he will stay off the clergy roster. Since he plans to remain with St. John's, he said his removal from the clergy roster will have no effect unless he tries to move to another congregation.