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Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA)

The 2009 Churchwide Assembly
(CWA): Overview of its activities

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Overview of the ELCA 2009 Churchwide Assembly (CWA):

The denomination held its week-long biennial assembly in Minneapolis, MN from August 17 to 23. The theme was "God's work. Our hands." About two thousand people were present, including 1,045 voting members.

This profoundly divided Churchwide Assembly (CWA) voted to lower some of the barriers against participation by LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual) members and clergy:

bullet Voting members approved a social statement on human sexuality by an exact two-thirds majority -- the absolute minimum required to pass it. It would have failed if even one voting delegate had voted against the statement instead of voting in favor.
bullet The CWA decided to open the ministry of the ELCA to gay and lesbian pastors and other professional church workers who are living in "publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous same-gender relationships." The vote was 55% in favor. A simple majority was needed in this case. Individual congregations that do not want to call a minister in such a relationship would have a veto power over the selection. Previously, ordination and service involving a lesbian or gay individual was generally limited to persons who were celibate.

We suspect that most attendees took one of two opposing viewpoints concerning the two changes. They would have been seen as either:

  1. Violating millennia of historical interpretations of Bible passages relating to same-sex sexual behavior, and overturning many centuries of Christian teaching about sexual minorities, or
  2. At least partly expunging three significant sins in the ELCA:
    bullet Homophobia -- institutionalized discrimination against LGBT persons,
    bullet Lack of respect for loving, committed same-sex relationships, and
    bullet The granting of special privileges restricted to members and clergy with a a heterosexual orientation.

Speech by Rev. Ishmael Noko:

On AUG-22, The Rev. Ishmael Noko, general secretary of the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) in Geneva, recalled that The Third LWF Assembly had met in Minneapolis, MN -- the same city where the 2009 CWA was held -- precisely 52 years earlier/ The theme was: "Christ Frees and Unites." Rev. Noko applied that theme to the 2009 CWA. He told the Assembly:

"Fifty-two years ago, the relation between and among the Lutheran churches was marked by suspicion. We were not even able to share the Lord's Table with easiness. Yet, it was in the midst of all those doubts, suspicion, and fears among them that the Lutherans rediscovered anew what unity means. That true unity is a gift. It is a gift rooted in the proclamation of the gospel and the celebration of the sacraments. This gift is God's own work. And our hands are to serve that unity. They understood that we, therefore, cannot use our hands to pull apart God's costly work. ... [In 1957] our forebears in faith decided to do the most sensible thing to do under those circumstances, and that is to stay together. They did not forsake one another. They understood that the Church is the Body of Christ, a creature of the gospel and, therefore, not ours to dismember. They have therefore left behind for us, from this city of Minneapolis, a legacy for us to stay together." 1,2

Long-range repercussions as a result of CWA 2009's decisions:

There will probably be many people joining, rejoining, and leaving the ELCA as a result of the decisions made by the 2009 CWA.

The Rev. Bradley E. Schmeling revealed that within two weeks following the CWA, he had learned about dozens of former members who have decided to return to the ELCA after many years of absence. He said:

"Even my own partner's sister's family intends to return to an ELCA congregation after many years of worship in other denominations. People write to me about their experiences with church issues. [They] know my name because of the trial a couple of years ago. ... I hope the story of people returning to the church gets told. We hear a lot about those who are in pain because of the changes and talk about leaving" the church. ... I understand that we'll enter a difficult period in the church, discerning how to move forward through these changes. I know there are many people who feel hurt. But I feel that, in the end, it will strengthen the church. Since the founding of the ELCA we have struggled with this issue and have used an enormous amount of energy and resources discerning our pathway through this. Now that we've made a decision, we can move on." 3

Rev. Schmeling was removed from the church's clergy roster in 2007 because he was found to be in a loving, committed same-gender relationship while serving as pastor of St. John Lutheran Church in Atlanta, GA. At the time, persons with a homosexual orientation were expected to remain celibate.

The Rev. Craig E. Johnson, bishop of the ELCA Minneapolis Area Synod wrote:

"This vote means that many in our church will be bitterly disappointed and angry Let us strive to live together as the Holy Scripture calls us to live together amid our disagreements." 4

Rev. David H. Brauer-Rieke, bishop of the ELCA Oregon synod wrote:

"However you feel about these decisions, you should be proud of the transparency, integrity, care and prayerful nature of the process we used to make them. This in and of itself is an amazing witness." 4
However, many traditionally minded members are certain to leave the denomination because of its partial acceptance of LGBT equality. Fortunately, there is a conservative wing of the Lutheran Church in the U.S. to which they can transfer, including:

bullet The Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod (LCMS). 5 and
bullet The Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ (LCMC). 6

The LCMC allows women to be ordained, 7 while the LCMS does not. 8

References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "Lutheran World Leader Says Body of Christ 'Not Ours to Dismember'," ELCA News Service, 2009-AUG-24, at:
  2. A video of Rev. Noko's speech is available at:
  3. "Lutheran Pastor Sees People Returning to Church Following Assembly Actions," ELCA News Service, 2009-SEP-09, at:
  4. "ELCA Synod Bishops, Voting Members Respond to Assembly Actions," ELCA News Service, 2009-AUG-28, at:
  5. "The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod," has a home page at:
  6. The Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ has a website at:
  7. "Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ," Section 3.1, Wikipedia, as at 2009-AUG-26,  at:
  8. "Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod," Section 7, Wikipedia, as at 2009-AUG-27, 

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Copyright 2009 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2009-SEP-09
Author: B.A. Robinson

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