GROVE CITY, Ohio - Critics of the country's largest Lutheran denomination and its more open stance toward gay clergy formed a new Lutheran church yesterday at a meeting of a conservative activist group.
The overwhelming voice vote by members of the Lutheran Coalition of Renewal created the North American Lutheran Church, a tiny denomination of churches formerly affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
As of early August, 199 congregations had cleared the hurdles to leave the ELCA for good, while 136 awaited the second vote needed to make it official. In all, there are 10,239 ELCA churches with about 4.5 million members, making it by far the largest Lutheran denomination, or synod, in the U.S.
The vote followed the ELCA's decision to move gay pastors into its fold, becoming the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S. to allow noncelibate gays into its ranks. The vote came during Lutheran CORE's annual meeting.
The gay-pastor issue was the tipping point for many Lutherans, but it followed serious concerns about the ELCA's movement away from holy scriptures as the final authority for church beliefs, said Paull Spring, of State College, Pa., the new denomination's first bishop.
He gave as an example the ELCA's use of inclusive language that strips male references to God - such as "Father" and "Son" - replacing them with words like "Creator" and "Savior."
"The issue that really presented itself was the issue of sexuality, but back of that was the broader issue: Which is the authoritative voice of the church today?" Spring said.
"Is it holy scripture, which Lutherans have always confessed, scripture alone, or is supposed to be some combination, that as well as some mood of the times?" he said.
The ELCA has lost more than half a million members over the past 20 years, a decline faced by many mainline congregations struggling to keep congregants.
"The average person out there who's interested in a Christian church wants the real thing," said Mark Chavez of Landisville, Pa., director of Lutheran CORE.
"They want Jesus. They want the gospel. They don't want something else."
The ELCA regrets the decision of some congregations to leave for the new denomination, said ELCA spokesman John Brooks.
"One of the hallmarks of the ELCA is that we reach out to other Christians in the spirit of understanding, reconciliation and unity," he said. "We pray for the unity of the whole church and its members, and we pray for those who will be leaving to join the North American Lutheran Church."