Clergy remove pastor for gay relationship

The gay pastor of Atlanta's oldest Lutheran church, who disclosed he was in a same-sex relationship, will not leave the pulpit despite being removed from his denomination's clergy roster.

The Rev. Bradley Schmeling's decision could open the 350-member congregation at St. John's Lutheran Church to disciplinary action from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

"The congregation issued a call to me in 2000 and as far as we are concerned, that hasn't changed," Schmeling said. "I'm disheartened (the decision) gives the impression the church is more interested in rules than in compassion."

In a decision issued Monday, the appeals committee ruled 10-2 to reverse an earlier panel's ruling that had allowed the pastor to stay on the roster until Aug. 15. By ELCA rules, Schmeling is now a lay person within the denomination, who should not wear a stole or perform sacraments, said Emily Eastwood of the gay rights group Lutherans Concerned.

But the congregation's president, John Ballew, said nothing will change at St. John's, though the church hopes to remain within the ELCA.

"Our respect has only grown in the last 14 months," Ballew said. "For us, it means nothing."

Schmeling told St. John's and his bishop that he is gay before he was chosen as pastor in 2000. But last year, when Schmeling announced he had found a lifelong companion, Bishop Ronald Warren of the ELCA's Southeastern Synod asked the 44-year-old pastor to resign.

When Schmeling refused, Warren started disciplinary proceedings against him, leading to a closed-door January trial in which a disciplinary hearing committee basically served as the jury.

In their decision, seven members of the 12-member disciplinary committee said they felt the church rule left them no choice but to defrock Schmeling, effective Aug. 15. But the committee also wrote that, if not bound by the rule, it "would find almost unanimously that Pastor Schmeling is not engaged in conduct that is incompatible with the ministerial office" and would order no discipline.

The committee suggested that the ELCA should remove its rule and reinstate gay clergy who were removed or resigned because they were in a same-sex "lifelong partnership."

Both Schmeling and Warren appealed the committee's decision, and the appeals members sided with Warren on Monday.

"My decision to seek Pastor Schmeling's removal from the ministry of this church was difficult because of my deep respect for the pastor and the congregation at St. John's, but the policy of this church is clear," Warren said in a statement Thursday.

The appeals committee ruled that the first committee had no right to delay Schmeling's removal until after the ELCA's biennial meeting churchwide assembly Aug. 6-12 in Chicago. It also said it exceeded its authority by suggesting the church should change its policies.

The acceptance of gay clergy has been at the core of a heated debate in many Protestant denominations. The ELCA, which has 4.9 million members, allows openly gay clergy, but only if they are celibate. Still, many Lutheran churches support ordaining partnered gays and perform same-sex blessing ceremonies despite the policy.

At the ELCA's most recent national meeting in 2005, a proposal failed that would have allowed synods to decide if they would accept a pastor in a same-sex relationship.

Schmeling and his supporters hoped that his case would promote that cause, and Schmeling has developed a following. Since the panel's ruling, his congregation's membership has spiked and he came in fourth in the election for the region's next Lutheran bishop. He even served as a grand marshal for the annual gay pride parade in Atlanta, one of the nation's largest such festivals.