The openly gay pastor of the oldest Lutheran church in Atlanta was removed from his position, officials announced on Thursday.
The decision from the Committee on Appeals of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is final but the Rev. Bradley Schmeling, who told St. John's Lutheran congregation last year that he was in a same-sex relationship, doesn't plan to leave the pulpit.
He said on Thursday that he plans to remain minister of St. John's.
"The congregation issued a call to me in 2000 and as far as we are concerned, that hasn't changed," affirmed Schmeling, who said he was deeply disappointed but not surprised. "I plan to continue to follow my call in ministry at St. John's and to pray for the day when all God's children are equally welcomed into the Lutheran church."
"Change has always proven difficult for the church. I continue to hope that the church will be centered in God's message of love, compassion and justice, rather than in the enforcement of discriminatory policies," he said.
ELCA, the largest Lutheran body in the United States, allows gay pastors, but only if they remain celibate.
Schmeling had told the 350-member congregation and his bishop, Ronald Warren, that he is gay before he was chosen as pastor in 2000. When he announced that he had found a lifelong companion, Warren asked the pastor to resign. Schmeling refused and Warren started disciplinary proceedings against him.
A disciplinary committee, which served as the jury, ruled that Schmeling should be allowed to remain on the clergy roster until after ELCA's biennial meeting churchwide assembly Aug. 6-12 in Chicago. The committee also suggested that ELCA remove its policy of forbidding gay pastors to have sexual relations and reinstate gay clergy who were removed or resigned because they were in a same-sex "lifelong partnership."
However, the Committee on Appeals on Monday said the first committee exceeded its authority by suggesting the church should change its policies. The appeals committee ordered Schmeling removed immediately.
In response to the appeals committee decision, Warren wrote in a pastoral letter on Thursday, "My decision to seek Pastor Schmeling's removal from the ministry of this church was difficult because of my deep respect for the pastor and the congregation at St. John's, but the policy of this church is clear."
St. John's members have backed Schmeling and the effort for the denomination to change its rules about sexually active gay clergy at the August assembly. Schmeling's decision to remain in St. John's pulpit could open the congregation to disciplinary action from ELCA.
Like many Protestant denominations, ELCA has been in heated debate over gay clergy and St. John's representatives plan to attend the upcoming churchwide assembly when a vote on allowing active gay ministers is expected.
ELCA is currently drafting a social statement on human sexuality, including homosexuality, based on responses from members nationwide, collected in three separate studies on human sexuality. A proposed social statement on human sexuality is slated for release early 2009.
"As this church continues prayerfully to consider the issue of clergy who are gay or lesbian and in committed relationships, both the synod and I will continue to work on finding ways to live together faithfully in the midst of our disagreements," said Warren.
Warren and Schmeling conversed on Thursday and agreed that Warren and the synod staff will meet with the executive committee of St. John's council and the St. John's congregation in the coming weeks.