MINNEAPOLIS — A fracture of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America became a real possibility last week with the announcement by dissidents that they will have a new Lutheran denomination ready for launch by August. That marks a speed-up in plans by Lutherans who oppose the ELCA's decision to allow gay clergy to be pastors.
"Every day we're hearing from people asking us to do something, so we are responding," said the Rev. Paull Spring, chairman of Lutheran CORE.
The ELCA office in Chicago anticipated the news. "The announcement by Lutheran CORE was not unexpected," said spokesman John Brooks.
CORE, an umbrella group of Lutheran organizations, led the fight against the gay-clergy vote at the ELCA convention in August in Minneapolis. The measure, which required a two-thirds majority, passed by one vote after days of contentious debate.
At the time, ELCA officials asked unhappy members to take no quick action in response to the vote, and delegates to the CORE meeting in Indianapolis agreed to wait a year before moving to split from the ELCA.
But last week the second-largest Lutheran congregation in Minnesota, the 4,500-member Hosanna Lutheran, announced that it had changed its mind about waiting and would take the first of the required two votes to leave the ELCA by mid-December.
CORE organizers said their accelerated exit strategy is not tied to any particular church's decision not to wait.
The change in timing is the result of a sense of growing impatience among an increasing number of congregations, said Ryan Schwarz, chairman of CORE's Vision and Planning Working Group, the committee that will draw up the framework for the new denomination.
"When we talked about waiting a year, we never intended to sit around for a year and just contemplate," he said. "We expected to do planning. Now we're also going to be doing the legwork in terms of creating a new church body."
The ELCA has 4.6 million members nationwide. It has 10,391 member churches.
Splitting from the parent denomination is not going to be an easy decision for some churches. Of the 87 congregations that have informed the ELCA they are considering leaving, the vote to split has failed in 28 of them.
The goal of the as-yet unnamed denomination is to have a proposed structure, including a statement of faith and financial plan, in place by the CORE convention Aug. 26 so a vote can be held and, if it passes, the new church can be launched.
There will still be a lot of work to do after that, Spring said, including making arrangements for the education of new clergy and drawing up a plan for ministries and missions.
It will probably be a work in progress, Schwarz said.
"One of the things we decided is that everything is going to be labeled 'provisional' for the first year," he said. "It will give us a chance to get settled in and see how things work, and if something doesn't fit, we can change it."
The new church will have a sister organization that will function as a free-standing synod. The purpose of that is to accommodate Lutherans who share CORE's values but belong to churches that stay in the ELCA, an issue in smaller towns where people might not have the option of choosing among multiple churches.
They also are exploring the option of allowing churches to belong to both the new denomination and the ELCA. This is not unprecedented. Another splinter denomination, Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ, includes many churches with dual affiliations.
"We wouldn't force a church to leave the ELCA to join us," Schwarz said.
Brooks said the same applies to the ELCA: "We'd never tell any of the churches what to do."
A similar split threatened the U.S. Episcopal Church after the openly gay Gene Robinson was elected bishop of New Hampshire in 2003. Since then, the church has lost about 4 percent of its total membership.