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Another Denomination to Try Clergy over Gays' Church Roles

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An Oakland church is rallying support for a gay minister facing a rare church trial.

St. Andrew Lutheran Church will hold a prayer service on Jan. 19 to support Rev. Bradley Schmeling. The Atlanta, Ga., Lutheran pastor faces a hearing that day that could result in the loss of his vocation because he is in a "partnered relationship," as he labels it, with another clergyman.

"What we're saying is, we're all baptized Christians together, and being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender doesn't change that," says Rev. Janet Grill of St. Andrew.

Bishop Ronald Warren of the Southeastern Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America set the hearing in August after Schmeling revealed the relationship. In a letter charging that Schmeling's non-celibate status outside marriage violated the denomination's Definitions and Guidelines for Discipline, Warren said he had asked Schmeling to resign from both his church post and the clergy, but Schmeling had refused.

Asking a pastor who is "intentionally partnered, faithfully partnered" in a same-sex relationship to remain celibate in order to remain a clergyman, says Grill, "puts you in an improbable box." She calls Schmeling "a superb pastor" whose congregation supports him.

Indeed, the Web site of St. John's Lutheran Church in Atlanta contains a schedule of activities in support of their pastor as well as an August letter from Schmeling: "We had hoped that the bishop might refrain from exercising discipline or that he might choose a form of discipline that didn't remove me from the roster," it says. "We fought hard to make the case that my ministry here is consistent with all other expectations and requirements for the ordained clergy."

Frank Imhoff, associate director of the denomination's news service in Chicago, says such disciplinary hearings are "not a common occurrence," although he cannot say how often they have been held against gay clergy in relationships. However, he adds, "The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has standards and expectations of its clergy and other professional lay leaders in the church. When those expectations are challenged by the conduct of anyone, the discipline is the next step."

"If you're qualified to be clergy there ought to be one set of rules ... regardless of your sexual orientation," says Phil Soucy, spokesperson for Lutherans Concerned/North America, which runs programs for LGBT-friendly Lutheran churches such as Oakland's St. Andrew. But Soucy allows that such a move by his denomination would have no practical effect on the predicament of clergy in gay relationships without "a blessing for covenanted relationships for same-gender couples" -- essentially, a type of marriage.

He says churches like St. Andrew must "be very public about [their] affirmation of welcome" to LGBT congregants. Otherwise, in the "all are welcome" signs commonly posted by churches, "the 'all' has a footnote. Not all are welcome ... more times than you would think it is possible in Christianity."

Grill says her Oakland church has "made an intentional statement to be open to LGBT people on the same confession of faith in Jesus Christ as Lord as any other member of the church. I hope that all people who are called by the Holy Spirit to the ministry in the Lutheran Church will be allowed to serve."

The Jan. 19 service was sent from the Atlanta congregation, she says, and will be similar to a chanted, candlelit Taize service. Participants are asked to bring 12-by-2 inch cloth strips with written prayers to St. Andrew by Jan. 9, which will be woven together for the service. Such is not the ordinary Lutheran practice, Grill says.

"Oh, it's the creative gay thing, which our church desperately needs," she says. "The real deal is, the LGBT pastors I know are so much better than I am. They are much more faithful, more traditional."

If the church has a problem with their work as clergy, she concludes, "What are we talking about here?"

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