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Lutheran pastor's
trial rekindles debates over gay clergy

Lutheran pastor's
trial rekindles debates over gay clergy

Oath

A gay pastor in a relationship with another man will face disciplinary proceedings for violating church rules banning sex outside marriage.

A gay Lutheran pastor who announced a year ago that he had a steady relationship with another man will face disciplinary proceedings for violating church rules banning sex outside marriage. The Reverend Bradley Schmeling of St. John's, Atlanta's oldest Lutheran church, will face a disciplinary hearing on Friday structured much like a trial, where a committee of 12 members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America will decide whether he can remain an ordained minister in the church. Schmeling and his supporters say they hope his case will lead to changes in those rules, making the church more accepting of relationships involving its gay pastors. "I want people who have felt excluded by the church for their sexual orientation to know God loves them," Schmeling said in an interview with the Associated Press last weekend. "We've always been a church that emphasizes the unconditional love of God, so this policy runs counter to that." Many mainline Protestant denominations in the United States, including the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Episcopal Church, and the Anglican Communion, have been struggling to resolve differences over homosexuality and gay clergy. The ELCA maintains it is simply following its own rules, which ban relationships outside marriage, even though they allow openly gay clergy. Schmeling told both his bishop and congregation about his sexual orientation before he was chosen pastor in 2000. When told of the steady relationship, however, the bishop of the ELCA's southeastern synod did not celebrate. Instead, Bishop Ronald Warren asked the 44-year-old pastor to resign. When Schmeling refused, Warren started disciplinary proceedings against him for violating church rules barring sex outside of marriage, which the church defines as only between a man and woman. ELCA spokesman John Brooks said that if a single, heterosexual pastor told his bishop that he was in a relationship outside of marriage and he refused to repent, he likely would face similar disciplinary proceedings. When Warren announced in August that he was taking action against Schmeling, he said he would not comment until a verdict is rendered. In 2005 delegates to an ELCA national meeting rejected a proposal to allow sexually active gay men and lesbians to be ordained as pastors if they were in committed, long-term relationships. Opponents, including Schmeling, say the policy discriminates against gay clergy by forcing them to refrain from sex, while heterosexuals only have to wait for marriage. "ELCA says it welcomes GLBT people but that welcome stops at committed relationships," said Phil Soucy, spokesman of Lutherans Concerned, a group fighting for full inclusion of gays in the church. Schmeling's disciplinary hearing, which will be closed to the public, is expected to run through the weekend. Afterward, the 12-person committee made up of both clergy and lay people, including two members chosen by Schmeling, will have a couple of weeks to decide whether to take action, which could include a suspension or removal from ordained ministry. Schmeling's congregation does not even want to consider where that would land them. "We want Bradley to be our pastor, and we want to remain in ELCA," congregation president Laura Crawley said. "If he's removed from the roster, he'll continue as pastor." While that could lead to disciplinary actions against St. John's, the married mother of two said she hopes the church will reform itself by understanding that "we want our pastors to live in the world with us." (Giovanna Dell'Orto, AP)

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