(Photo: AP / Tom Strattman)
Conservative Lutherans from congregations throughout the country voted on Saturday to begin deciding on whether to go their separate ways from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
Arguing that the ELCA has fallen into heresy, the traditional group has essentially initiated a process that they hope will lead to a reconfiguration of Lutheranism in North America.
"We are forming a churchly community because our prior churchly community has walked away from the faith off the one holy catholic and apostolic Church," said Ryan Schwarz, a member of the Lutheran CORE (Coalition for Reform) steering committee.
Some 1,200 Lutherans gathered in Indianapolis this past weekend to take actions in response to last month's vote by ELCA's chief legislative body to approve a resolution allowing gays and lesbians in "life-long, monogamous, same gender relationships" to be ordained.
"The church is in a confessional crisis," the Rev. Marshall E. Hahn, St. Olaf, told the ELCA News Service. "The decisions that we made at the assembly were done contrary to our own confessional faith."
Responses to the gay-affirming actions were mixed. Some congregations plan to or have already voted to leave the 4.7 million-member denomination while others do not intend to sever ties.
Lutheran CORE, meanwhile, is committed to creating a "viable church body" to support both congregations that quit the ELCA and those that choose to remain and push orthodox Christian values from within, according to Schwarz.
"I believe it is abundantly clear that God is reforming the churches of the Reformation,” said Schwarz. "The question for us is how we will respond to the clear invitation to re-vision Lutheranism."
Among the actions taken on Saturday, disaffected Lutherans adopted a constitution that changes the name of the ministry from Lutheran Coalition for Reform to a Coalition for Renewal and also establishes the group as a "free-standing synod" that will carry out ministries apart from the ELCA.
They also authorized the CORE steering committee to initiate conversations among CORE members as well as with other conservative Lutheran organizations, including Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ, on whether to form another denomination.
"This could be one of the biggest events in Lutheran history in contemporary time,” said the Rev. Jaynan Clark, president of the WordAlone Network, which is part of Lutheran CORE.
The Rev. Paul Ulring, a member of the CORE steering committee, insisted that they are not dividing the church. The church is already divided, he said, and they are just "mopping up what the church did."
Similar sentiments were shared by conservatives in the Anglican tradition who also felt abandoned by The Episcopal Church when it refused to repent of actions that conservatives say marked a departure from orthodox Christianity, including the 2003 decision to consecrate an openly gay priest.
In a video message sent to Lutheran CORE members, the Rt. Rev. Martyn Minns, bishop of the Convocation of Anglicans in North America, empathized with the Lutherans saying, "We know the pain. We've been there."
"But we also know the joy and freedom that come when we move away from a church that has frankly lost its way," he added. "I encourage you to stand together,... to pray together. No, you're not alone."
In June, Minns joined thousands of traditional Anglicans in constituting a separate Anglican province in North America, essentially rivaling The Episcopal Church – the U.S. arm of Anglicanism.
The Lutheran CORE steering committee will report back next September with recommendations on future steps.
For now, committee member Ulring encouraged Lutherans to be optimistic for the future.
"We’ve spent all our ELCA years and before, struggling and working against what has now happened. It’s over; it’s done," he said. "Let’s take that energy, that passion and transfer it to a future that we don’t have clearly, but a future that surely is better than what we’ve been messing with. And let’s be gracious and kind, known for our positive spirit and hope. Let’s be known for what we believe, not what we’re against anymore. Let’s be faithful to the Gospel, the Word of God, and the Lord Jesus."