CHICAGO (Reuters) - An appeals panel in the largest U.S. Lutheran body has ordered a gay pastor removed from his ministry because he is in a sexual relationship with another man, officials said on Thursday.
The decision from the Committee on Appeals of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is final in the case of Pastor Bradley Schmeling of St. John’s Lutheran Church in Atlanta.
The 4.8-million-member ELCA allows gays to serve as pastors so long as they abstain from sexual relations.
That policy will likely be challenged and could be revised at the church’s annual meeting in Chicago next month, but even if it is changed Schmeling would not automatically be reinstated since that usually requires a separate process that can take up to five years, a church spokesman said.
Schmeling said he was deeply disappointed but not surprised.
“Change has always proven difficult for the church. I continue to hope that the church will be centered in God’s message of love, compassion and justice, rather than in the enforcement of discriminatory policies,” he said.
John Ballew, president of the St. John’s congregation, said he and others planned to attend the Churchwide Assembly in August to fight for a change in policy.
Schmeling did not hide his sexual orientation when he came to St. John’s in 2000. In 2005 he entered into an open partnership with another man, thus violating church policy.
It marked the third time since the ELCA was formed in 1988 that a pastor in a gay relationship has been ordered kicked out. The gay clergy issue has become a flashpoint in other faiths, including the Anglican Church.
‘STRUGGLE NOT OVER’
A disciplinary committee which presided over Schmeling’s trial earlier this year ruled that he should be allowed to remain on the clergy roster until after the August meeting to see if the church changes its policy.
That same panel said the policy of allowing gays as pastors but forbidding them to have sexual relations is “at least bad policy, and may very well violate the constitution and bylaws of this church.”
But the Committee on Appeals in a decision made public on Thursday ruled that the disciplinary panel did not have the power to keep Schmeling on the roster pending the convention, and ordered him removed immediately.
Removal from the clergy roster means that he can no longer perform sacramental duties at his church.
Lutherans Concerned, a gay-lesbian rights group within the church, said it was “deeply saddened, angry and more determined following the artless and callous treatment of Pastor Bradley ... there are not scriptural precedents for such behavior in Christ’s life.”
The group said 22 congregations of the church have approved resolutions asking that the current policy be revised and “the struggle is not over.”
A church spokesman said some congregations have also passed resolutions asking that the current policy be left alone and others want the matter deferred until 2009 when the church hopes to have in place a broader statement on such issues.
“The church is not of one mind on the whole issue,” said ELCA spokesman John Brooks.