ELCA splits!

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, like the Episcopalians, have split over homosexuality. A new church body is now being organized, consisting of congregations that reject the ELCA’s decision to allow non-celibate homosexuals to serve as pastors:

Conservative members of America’s largest Lutheran denomination announced that they are splitting from the Chicago-based Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, making it the second mainline Protestant church to undergo a major schism over the issue of homosexuality and related matters of biblical authority. . . .

On Wednesday, an 11-member steering committee of Lutheran CORE (Coalition for Renewal), meeting in New Brighton, Minn., said it cannot remain inside the 4.7-million-member ELCA after the denomination agreed at its August churchwide assembly in Minneapolis to ordain partnered gay clergy.

That decision, CORE said in a statement, created “a biblical and theological crisis throughout the ELCA and conflict in local congregations.”

“We are not leaving the ELCA. The ELCA has left us,” said Ryan Schwarz, a steering committee member from the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in McLean, Va. “A lot of people who are planning to leave are telling us, ‘We need you to form a new body that is like a traditional church body.’ ”

Financing will not be a problem for the yet-to-be-named Lutheran synod, which expects to triple or quadruple its $100,000 annual budget.

“Money has been pouring in since the churchwide assembly,” Mr. Schwarz said. “We received more in contributions in the July-to-September quarter than the first six months combined. People are being incredibly generous.”

In contrast, the ELCA’s board of directors this week cut $7.7 million from its 2010 budget, eliminating 40 positions, though six of them already were vacant. Church officials said the cuts were results of the poor economy and conservative congregations that are withholding their funds out of disagreement with the denomination’s direction.

Each CORE church would have to take steps individually to leave the ELCA and join the new synod. CORE has about 86 member churches and claims more than 300 other churches and groups as affiliates.

CORE’s announcement stems from a Sept. 25-26 gathering in Fishers, Ind., that drew 1,200 like-minded Lutherans and culminated in a decision to work toward a “possible reconfiguration of North American Lutheranism.”

CORE will not join forces with the Milwaukee-based Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS) or the St. Louis-based Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS) partly because neither ordains women. CORE allows female clergy.

Nor will it merge with the Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ (LCMC), another breakaway group of 249 congregations, 23 of which have joined the churchwide assembly since August.

The Rev. David Baer, a CORE spokesman, said LCMC’s structure is a bit too loose for many CORE congregations.

ELCA spokesman John Brooks said 87 out of 10,300 congregations have taken the first of a required two votes to leave the denomination, and 28 failed to muster the necessary two-thirds majority. Five have left the ELCA since August.

“This news from Lutheran CORE was expected,” he said. “We know it takes hard work to organize a new church body. … There has always been a place in the ELCA for all people despite our differences on various issues.”

The ELCA will not sue a departing congregation, he added, as long as it joins another Lutheran church body.

Mr. Schwarz will serve as chairman of a working group that will draft recommendations as to how this new synod will be structured, where its headquarters will be and whether it will be governed by bishops.

Voting on these items will take place at an Aug. 26-27 Lutheran CORE Convocation at Upper Arlington Lutheran Church in Columbus, Ohio.

Note carefully: The new church body will ordain women, which will mean, for other conservative Lutherans, that it will not be nearly conservative enough. (Questions for ELCA members or others who might know: Is there no opposition to the ordination of women in the ELCA? Is the issue that settled? Are there conservatives in that body that will not join the new denomination on that grounds?)

Note also that the ELCA, unlike the American Episcopal hierarchy, will NOT sue churches that decide to leave or, presumably, try to take their property. That’s to ELCA’s credit.

I know that we are supposed to lament it when denominations or congregations split. Yes, Christians should be unified. But it seems to me that there can be an INCREASE in unity when those splits happen, traumatic though they may be. Instead of being in one organization in which there is disunity–with people disagreeing and fighting with each other–there are two organizations in which people agree and live peaceably and in unity with each other. There is thus more unity than existed before.