The great Lutheran schism that wasn’t
February 26th, 2010
When the Episcopal Church confirmed Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire even though Robinson was in a long-term committed relationship with a man, it resulted in a world-wide shake-up of the Anglican faith. Several congregations, including some with historical reverence, separated from the denomination. Three dioceses voted to leave the church, and legal battles have warred over church property. In total, the Episcopal schism included as many as 700 congregations and in excess of 100,000 congregants.
Internationally, this decision was catalyst for a split between more liberal Western members of the Anglicanism and the churches in the Global South. Primates in Africa and Asia, which have more congregants but are poorer and traditionally less influential have seen this as an opportunity to redefine the global power structure of the Anglican Communion and to redirect the flow of Anglican Christianity in a more conservative direction.
The Episcopal Church, and other western bodies of the union, have shown no inclination to rethink their liberal understanding of Christianity or to adopt anti-gay attitudes or rules that the Bishops of Nigeria and Uganda (among others) sought to dictate. But having had a taste of international prominence and influence, conservative African Anglican leaders are unlikely to “allow” Anglicans in the United States, Canada, or even the United Kingdom to set their own policies. It seems inevitable that the corporate structure of the third largest Christian community in the world will fracture.
So when the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the seventh largest denomination in the nation, came together in August of last year to consider several changes to the way in which the church would recognize gay Lutherans, some pointed to the Episcopal schism and warned of the same. And after the ELCA voted to adopt a new social position on sexuality that included as valid those who advocate for full civil marriage, changed their rules to allow gay partnered pastors, and authorized blessings of same-sex unions (all with significant majorities), dissenters warned of a great consequence that the church would have to pay.
Six months have passed since the denomination chose a more inclusive stance towards gay Lutherans. And while several local newspapers have carried stories about positions and actions of specific congregations, it has not been immediately clear to what extent the changes have impacted the body. But an article in the Washington Post has now provided the answer: not much.
Since August, congregations have not left the ELCA in huge numbers. The denomination has about 10,000 congregations, and in all 220 have taken at least one of two required votes to leave. So far, only 28 congregations have actually approved leaving, which requires two separate votes that each attain a two-thirds supermajority.
“Even if that number doubles or triples, it would still be less than 5 percent of the ELCA,” said Bishop Peter Rogness of the St. Paul, Minn. synod. “So it’s not as though a schism has happened, where we’re a denomination split in half. Nothing on that magnitude is in the offing.”
So the great Lutheran schism exists more in the minds of those who are theologically anti-gay than in reality. Considering that Lutherans, on the whole, are less liberal on the grand scale of religious ideology than Episcopalians, this might come as a surprise to some.
But there are several reasons why the ELCA is not fracturing over the issue of homosexuality in the church.
First, there are far fewer ELCA member with sharp ideological differences but a long affiliation to the history of the denomination.
Unlike the Episcopal Church, there is not one official historical organizational body for Lutherans. While ELCA is the largest Lutheran community, there are many others including the traditionally more conservative Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod (the nation’s eighth largest denominational body). And the ELCA has only been in existence since 1988, when it was the result of a merger of three smaller Lutheran groups. And those who were somewhat similar in thought probably would not have merged at that time.
Secondly, leaving the ELCA is not administratively easy. It requires a two-thirds agreement of congregants in two votes separated by 90 days. It is not easy to keep a sense of anger whipped up for three months.
And Lutherans are not known as a divisive or confrontational bunch. The “oh, sure, you betcha” stereotypes are not without a basis. In more than one instance, church leadership got all fired up only do discover that the members just didn’t care that much.
Next, there is no unified schismatic organization to lobby for continued division.
Unlike the Episcopal offshoot, The Anglican Church in North America, those who left or are leaving the ELCA have a number of options with whom to affiliate. The Lutheran Core, which sought to be the anti-ELCA, moved too slowly to create their own new community and with so many Lutheran groups focused on the positive who are ready to welcome breakaways, it is less easy to organize around anger and discontent.
Finally, there is no sense of international outrage and thus no feeling of entitlement in breakaways or any sense that they are the “real” Lutherans.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is part of the Lutheran World Federation. But unlike the Anglican Church, Lutherans are more dominant in Northern Europe and have a much lesser presence in the developing world (other than Ethiopia, which seems to have been a religious anomaly for millennia). As the ‘official church’ of a number of Scandinavian countries, Lutherans in Sweden, and Norway, Denmark have long since become accustomed to ever more inclusive theology.
Going forward, other denominations may be well served by looking at the resulting situation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America rather than that of the Episcopal Church. The Lutheran model is probably much closer in structure and international presence to most other mainline churches.