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Lutheran church opts to switch sects

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By Richard Robbins
Friday, Aug. 5, 2011

St. Paul Evangelical Lutheran Church of Trauger has ended its relationship with the nation's largest Lutheran denomination in favor of the North American Lutheran Church in part over issues of same-sex marriage and relationships, including those that involve pastors.

St. Paul's pastor, the Rev. Mark Werner, said the break, which also involved broader questions of theology, came after two years of study and prayer. "We are moving on with our ministry," he said.

The 200 active members of the congregation voted on Sunday for the second time to leave the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA). For a breakup, two separate ballots are required under the ELCA constitution.

A North American Lutheran Church (NALC) official said 22 Pennsylvania churches have voted to sever their ties to the ELCA, including Lutheran churches in Berlin, Friedens and Hooversville, all in Somerset County, and Pittsburgh's Brighton Heights neighborhood.

The Rev. Gregory Held, pastor of the Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Export, said his congregation will vote in September on whether to leave the ELCA. He said the "option" of joining the NALC was still being debated.

In August 2009, the ELCA adopted what it called "a distinctly Lutheran approach" to sexuality which included the provision that homosexual pastors in committed, monogamous relationships might continue to minister to their flocks. The statement ignited a storm of protest in some congregations.

The Rev. John Bradosky, NALC's general secretary, said congregations have also expressed alarm that the ELCA was on the brink of sanctioning same-sex marriage. He said the denomination was under pressure from churches in the Northeast to do so.

Speaking for the ELCA, Bishop Kurt Kusserow of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Lutheran Synod said the division over sexuality was unfortunate, because the August 2009 national ELCA conference left the decision to accept or reject "same-gender relationships" for pastors to individual churches.

"By allowing congregations that wish to do so," Kusserow said, the ELCA was reaffirming a conviction that parishioners and churches holding different points of views on the matter could "live together" within the confines of the denomination. The live-and-let-live clause was adopted at the conference, he noted.

The conference, attended by 1,000 voting church members, passed a measure "recognizing and supporting people in same-gender relationships," Kusserow said. It did not, however, "bless" those relationships, according to the bishop.

Kusserow was a former pastor of the church in Trauger. He attended several meetings at which severing the church's ties to the ELCA was discussed. He said the break with the ELCA was "profoundly sad."

The NALC, based in Columbus, Ohio, has 250 individual churches, Bradosky said. The year-old denomination contains about 100,000 parishioners.

The ELCA's flock totals about 4.5 million, Kusserow said.

Shawn D. Lazeski, president of the St. Paul church council, said a two-thirds vote of the congregation was required to leave the ELCA. He said the second and final vote in the two-step process passed with the backing of 72 percent of the congregation.

Lazeski cited disagreements with the ELCA going back 15 years over abortion and such scriptural concerns as "universal salvation."

"It comes down to how the Bible is understood," Lazeski said.

A "healing" service is slated to take place at the church at 6 p.m. Aug. 21, Werner said, designed in part to repair some of the bitter divisions the split engendered.

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