By Ann Rodgers / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Bring on the lutefisk and sauerkraut: two Lutheran denominations are about to hold national gatherings in Pittsburgh.
Don't expect members of the 4 million-member Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the 130,000-member North American Lutheran Church to share those church-supper favorites. The NALC is one of two splinter bodies created by theological conservatives unhappy with the ELCA's 2009 decision to permit partnered gay clergy.
There are diplomatic exchanges between their leaders, who will have representatives at each other's meetings. But it's more like a divorced couple striving for civility than a friendship.
The ELCA, which now has its first partnered gay bishop-elect, still has tensions over same-sex marriage and related issues. NALC is struggling with how to educate clergy without its own seminary. But both are concerned with how to attract members in an age when fewer people commit to organizations of any kind.
"We would like to see ways in which [the two churches] can be neighbors ... flowing from the great commandment to love our neighbor," said Bishop Donald McCoid, a former bishop of Pittsburgh and now the chief ecumenical officer of the ELCA.
"Obviously there are differences between the two church bodies or they wouldn't have left and founded another church. But they are a church, and we would hope that some of the comments that have been made, some of the things that have hurt, would stop. When you are hurt you can be angry, but that doesn't serve the Christian church very well."
Bishop McCoid, who attended previous NALC assemblies, is delegating an associate due to preparations for his own meeting. Bishop John Bradosky, who leads the NALC, will attend the ELCA assembly.
The NALC gathering opens with a theological conference Thursday and Friday. The weekend convocation will draw 700 delegates and guests to the Sheraton Station Square. About 3,000 people will attend the ELCA assembly Monday through Aug. 17 at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center.
Despite recent schisms, the ELCA is celebrating 25 years since it was founded as a merger of three earlier Lutheran bodies.
"This is a time of hope, but that's not to say the fight is over. For those for whom the fight is going on it's exceedingly unhelpful to be told the fight is over," said Bishop Kurt Kusserow of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Synod of the ELCA. After losing 17 churches to the NALC, his nine-county synod has about 70,000 members in 177 congregations.
"The largest portion of our church has the sense that we want to move ahead together into the future with hopefulness, and the 25th anniversary is a sign of that. ... But you don't have to look very deep to find folks who are really hurting," he said.
Although there is anger in the ranks, Bishop Kusserow showed Christian grace by nominating NALC for membership in the regional ecumenical body Christian Associates of Southwest Pennsylvania, said the Rev. Eric Riesen, pastor of Zion Lutheran Church in Brentwood and dean of the NALC mission district that includes Southwest Pennsylvania, West Virginia and parts of Maryland and New York.
"I think that there is a real effort to put the best construction on things," he said.
Bishop Kusserow said bishops and executives of other denominations questioned him about whether to admit a church that had gone into schism.
"I don't see preserving division to be in the interest of the church," he said. "We are called to do everything we can to preserve the unity of the church. I said it would be my choice to propose that NALC be admitted to this body as a sign that unity has been our interest all along."
But the losses have hurt, locally and nationally, he said.
"With fewer people, fewer individual congregations are viable, and those that are working with fewer resources," he said.
Lutheranism has traditionally been the largest Protestant tradition in Pennsylvania, though in recent years it slipped behind the United Methodist Church. In Southwestern Pennsylvania, where Presbyterians are strong, it has run third among Protestants. The Catholic Church is by far the largest religious body locally and statewide.
Lutheranism has long been divided into multiple churches. The 2.3 million-member Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod didn't attract many refugees from the ELCA because its theological convictions were to the right of most NALC conservatives. Some prominent conservative ELCA theologians became Catholic or Eastern Orthodox.
The ELCA had typically lost less than one-half of 1 percent of its membership each year in a steady attrition. But since the gay ordination decision, known losses averaged 3.5 percent, totaling 573,000 members.
The NALC started in 2010 with 17 congregations and is now nearing 400. Another splinter group, Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ has twice that many, but none near Pittsburgh.
The theological waters in NALC are calm, but it has large financial decisions to make about whether to start its own seminary. Currently Trinity School for Ministry, an Anglican seminary in Ambridge, has a Lutheran house of studies for NALC students.
"The question of how to train pastors is a big issue and it will be a continuing challenge," Rev. Riesen said.
Multiple tensions over sexuality remain in the ELCA.
Unlike other denominations that also accept partnered gay clergy, the ELCA requires a "publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous" relationship.
Its official policy doesn't permit same-sex weddings or blessings, while it requires ministers in same-sex relationships to receive the job benefits of married couples in states where same-sex marriage is legal.
"I think that those who are working for the full inclusion of all sexual minorities, not just gays and lesbians but transgendered people, believe their work has only begun. They have not nearly accomplished their goals and are very involved in debates about the states providing full legal marriage," Bishop Kusserow said.
"At the same time, others in the church believe that work has probably gone farther than it should when our commitment to scripture and to the confessions is taken into account. That struggle will continue."
He hasn't take a public position, although the local synod has long voiced opposition to gay ordination.
"I try not to lead with my personal convictions one way or the other. I've wanted to be able to pledge that I will honor the convictions of all the members of our synod and our church," he said. "I do believe that there are some matters of ... the way our church organizes itself that don't have to do with the moral right or wrong of how to treat people in same-gender relationships, where we have not been wise. We are confusing people."
Ann Rodgers: email@example.com or 412-263-1416.
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