The great Lutheran schism that wasn’t

Timothy Kincaid

February 26th, 2010

elcaWhen 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.


February 26th, 2010

As a new Lutheran, I was very pleased and encouraged with how the ELCA went about this process. Their decisions this summer (which you mentioned above) do not mandate that a church ordain LGBT pastors or perform LGBT marriages. They only allow that churches that want to, can. It is a very live and let live approach that acknowledges differences of theology.

I am happy not as many churches have left but more than the 220 churches mentioned have stopped supporting the ELCA financially. So there are still plenty of churches that are pissed.

But yes, let the way the ELCA went about this (7 year process…) be a lesson to other denominations!


February 26th, 2010

Thanks for a well written and thoughtful piece about the differences between the Episcopalian right wingers and the Lutherans. I am not a member of either group (grew up Catholic) but have become quite aware of the extreme hatred of gays that is promulgated by many of these conservative Episcopalians under the guise of being true Christians. A work computer left open to the site “Stand Firm in Faith” was an eye opener. So was finding out that one of the biggest conservative Episcopal homophobic bloggers on the Internet lives in my relatively small community. As a third party observer I have been shocked at the hypocrisy of the ACNA and the hateful diatribes that are published on this site with such a sanctimonious attitude. This group seems to have forgotten that the majority of Episcopalians do not support discrimination, and that is the very reason why the Episcopal Church is moving forward with being more inclusive. It’s now clear that at least within the Episcopal Church these holier than though bigots are in the minority. Pueblo, Colorado.


February 26th, 2010

There *was* a big schism in the MO Synod over biblical inerrancy back in the 70s, but you know… I think most Lutherans are more amiable (and less intensely political) than many in The Episcopal Church(es) here in the US, also abroad.

I’m an ELCA member (was raised in the Lutheran Church in America, which is one of the groups that later merged into the LCA), and while I can imagine that *individuals* are worked up about the changes, I just can’t see the ELCA fragmenting in the way that TEC has done. (Although I will admit to having been very opposed to the idea of the changes that were implemented this past year, back when they were in discussion 8+ years ago… when I was involved in evangelicalism. Being away from that atmosphere has brought a lot of changes for me personally, and I’m by no means a “liberal” person re. doctrine. Am hoping that most ELCA members are coming from a similar place.)

At any rate, this post (and the linked articles) are very heartening!


February 26th, 2010

“Heartening” in the sense that few people actually *are* leaving, that is! (Wish i could rewrite part of my last comment; please feel free to merge these two.)


February 26th, 2010

I’m not so sure how Anglican the Anglican schism really is, at least in the US.

The ranks of socially conservative Episcopalians, especially the ones who are currently trying to appropriate the term “Anglican” to themselves alone, have been pumped up by members of other denominations who would love to see an Anglican schism over gay issues. The Institute for Religion and Democracy has been targeting the Episcopal Church for years in this way.

The Anglican Church in North America web site lists a number of member churches with decidedly un-Anglican sounding names, such as the Anglican Bible Church in Windsor, CA. According to that church’s web site, it’s the result of a merger between an Anglican church and a non-denominational one. From an Episcopalian point of view, that is just plain bizarre. The ACNA site also uses language that seems borrowed from fundamentalism and the neo-pentecostal movement — there’s a lot about “transformation” and “church planting.”

Episcopalians just don’t talk like that — at least, we didn’t use to. Particularly not the high church Episcopalians, who once upon a time were the ones most likely to prefer the term “Anglican,” out of fondness for, well, England, the Oxford Movement, smells and bells, boys’ choirs, watercress sandwiches, and the blue haired matrons with straw hats who keep trying to foist their daughters on the stubbornly single curate… All that could be very annoying at times, but I dislike what seems to have replaced it even more.


February 26th, 2010

This is fantastic news! I was truly fearful the ELCA decision would create much bickering and fighting. Some is inevitable, of course, but I’m so happy it’s so little.


February 27th, 2010

This sounds just like the ELCA Lutheran church I used to belong to. Two things really matter in ELCA churches- no Catholicism in/from the pulpit, and decent quality to the post-worship assortment of baked goods, juices, and coffee. Most other things tend to be regarded as someone else’s problem.

The ELCA leadership tends to check with the Lutheran church leadership in Sweden about their experience with cultural matters coming down the pike. That often makes for more realistic and pragmatic decisions than in other denominations.

The social reactionaries still leave ELCA churches for Missouri Synod ones. The great wave of those left the ELCA during the Seventies and Eighties, as far as I know, and that has limited the amount of Culture War in the ELCA since. The LCMS is currently in serious decline, though.


February 28th, 2010

As an ELCA member since birth I’ve been watching all of this with some degree of apprehension, combined with laughter (when reading outsiders perspectives on Why on earth it was taking so long!) Unless you understand ELCA Lutheran culture the last 7 years have been maddening, even to us insiders the church leadership takes a long time deciding things.

My church for example at our last congregational meeting had a motion to bar the church leadership (our church council) from considering a man or woman in a committed same-sex relationship for a call (asking them to be our pastor), and it was decided to take a year to meditate on the proposal, so that no one would make a rash decision. I don’t think we’ll pass it, at least in conversations with other church members I don’t think people feel passionate enough about this to vote for it.

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