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By Jacqueline L. Salmon / Washington Post, Published September 25 2009

Gay-clergy opponents eye exodus

St. Martin’s Evangelical Lutheran Church of Annapolis, Md., is a house of worship on the brink. It recently voted to explore leaving the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America because of the denomination’s decision last month to allow gay people in committed relationships to serve as clergy.

St. Martin’s pastor, the Rev. Gerald A. Miller, said he isn’t sure whether his church will leave the 4.6-million-member ELCA to join another Lutheran denomination.

“We are struggling,” said Miller, who wrote a heartfelt letter to his 1,000-member congregation about the issue of gay clergy last month. “We are really struggling.”

He and 1,200 other conservative Lutherans from across the country will gather today in an Indianapolis suburb, where many will be considering whether to walk away from the ELCA.

A similar controversy has strained the Episcopal Church, and whether gay people should be allowed to serve in church leadership roles is a question that also troubles other mainline Protestant denominations.

The ELCA has long allowed celibate gay people to serve, but its national assembly voted last month to let gay people in lifelong, monogamous relationships serve as clergy and professional lay leaders in congregations that want them.

For ELCA conservatives, the decision represented a breakdown in the Scriptural underpinnings of their Lutheran faith. The meeting outside Indianapolis was organized by a conservative umbrella group, Coalition for Reform, whose members believe that the new policy is heresy.

Attendees will be invited to form a “free-standing synod” (or diocese) that leaders say will carry out ministries separate from the ELCA and encourage congregations to direct their donations away from the ELCA.

The ELCA, the largest Lutheran denomination in the United States, was formed 21 years ago by the merger of three Lutheran organizations.

“The reality is that many traditional congregations will leave, and many will stay,” said Ryan Schwarz, a District of Columbia lay leader of the conservative effort. “We intend to care for both, developing structures that allow both those who leave and those who stay to do so with integrity and to remain in common mission together.”

On Wednesday, ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark S. Hanson wrote in a pastoral letter to church leaders that he is “disappointed” that some people are encouraging congregations and members to take actions that “will diminish our capacity for ministry.” He warned that such actions could affect the denomination’s ability to start churches, send out missionaries and rebuild communities after disasters.

Across the country, other gatherings are taking place as congregations grapple with the change.