In breaking down barriers restricting gays and lesbians from the pulpit, the nation's largest Lutheran denomination has laid down a new marker in a debate over the direction of mainline Protestant Christianity, a tradition that once dominated American religious life.
By voting Friday to allow gays and lesbians in committed relationships to serve as clergy, the 4.7-million member Evangelical Lutheran Church in America will either show how a church can stand together amid differences, or become another casualty of division over sexual morality and the Bible, observers say.
"We're going to be living in tension and ambiguity for a longer time, partly because the culture has shifted," said David Steinmetz, a Duke Divinity School professor of Christian history.
The question is whether the mainline church will shift alongside, or if it will decide that the more welcoming attitude toward homosexuality is wrong, he said.
The ELCA — the nation's seventh largest Christian church — reached its conclusion after eight years of study and deliberation. That culminated Friday when the church's national assembly in Minneapolis struck down a policy that required any gay and lesbian clergy to remain celibate.
The assembly also signed off on finding ways for willing congregations to "recognize, support and hold publicly accountable lifelong, monogamous, same gender relationships." The church fell short of calling that gay marriage, but conservatives see that as the next step.
While congregations will not be forced to hire gay clergy, conservative ELCA members decried the decisions as straying from clear Scriptural direction and warned that defections are likely.
Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson pleaded for unity, appealing to both those who long felt marginalized and thought the changes were overdue and those "who feel they were once more central but now feel more peripheral."
Photo - Pastor Sue Sprowls, center, of Ann Arbor, Mich., speaks in front of other voting members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) convention of Friday Aug. 21, 2009 at the Minneapolis Convention Center in Minneapolis. Opponents made a last stand Friday against a proposal to allow sexually active gays and lesbians in committed relationships to serve as clergy in the nation's largest Lutheran denomination. Gays and lesbians are currently allowed to serve as Evangelical Lutheran Church in America ministers only if they remain celibate. (AP Photo/Dawn VIllella)