Under the new policy, individual ELCA congregations will be allowed to hire homosexuals as clergy as long as they are in committed relationships. Until now, gays and lesbians had to remain celibate to serve as clergy.
The change passed with the support of 68 percent of about 1,000 delegates at the ELCA's national assembly. It makes the group, with about 4.7 million members in the U.S., one of the largest U.S. Christian denominations yet to take a more gay-friendly stance.
"I have seen these same-gender relationships function in the same way as heterosexual relationships - bringing joy and blessings as well as trials and hardships," the Rev. Leslie Williamson, associate pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church in Des Plaines, Illinois, said during the hours of debate. "The same-gender couples I know live in love and faithfulness and are called to proclaim the word of God as are all of us."
Conservative congregations will not be forced to hire gay clergy. Nevertheless, opponents of the shift decried what they saw as straying from clear Scriptural direction, and warned that it could lead some congregations and individual churchgoers to split off from the ELCA.
"This will cause an ever greater loss in members and finances. I can't believe the church I loved and served for 40 years can condone what God condemns," said the Rev. Richard Mahan, pastor at St. Timothy Lutheran Church in Charleston, West Virginia. "Nowhere in Scripture does it say homosexuality and same-sex marriage is acceptable to God. Instead, it says it is immoral and perverted."
David Keck, a delegate from the Southern Ohio Synod, said he feared that by embracing partnered gays as clergy that the ELCA was heading down a road that would ultimately lead to "the blessing of same-sex unions as the policy of this church," he said.
Mahan said he believed a majority of his congregation would want to now break off from the ELCA.
Other leaders indicated they might leave as well; the Rev. Tim Housholder, pastor of St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Cottage Grove, Minnesota, described himself during the debate as a rostered ELCA pastor "at least for a few more hours." The Rev. Marshall Hahn, pastor at St. Olaf Lutheran Parish in Dubuque, Iowa, said he'd need to talk to his bishop "to discuss what this means for my future with this church."
In September, Lutheran CORE - the group that led the fight against the changes - is holding a convention in Indianapolis to discuss the next steps. It also encouraged ELCA members and congregations to direct finances away from ELCA churchwide organizations and toward "faithful ministries within and outside of the ELCA."
Other Christian denominations in the United States have struggled to remain united in the face of such debates. In 2003, the 2 million-member Episcopal Church of the United States consecrated its first openly gay bishop, a move that alienated American Episcopalians from its worldwide parent church, the Anglican Communion. The divide has led to the formation of the more conservative Anglican Church in North America, which claims 100,000 members.