ATLANTA (AP) - When the congregation at St. John's, Atlanta's oldest Lutheran church, chose a gay pastor in 2000, some worried it could complicate its relations with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and bring unwelcome notoriety.
By the time the Rev. Bradley Schmeling announced last year that he had found a lifelong companion, he had impressed most in the 350-member congregation. They rejoiced for him, and threw the couple a party.
When told of the relationship, the bishop of the ELCA's southeastern synod didn't celebrate. Instead, Bishop Ronald Warren asked the 44-year-old pastor to resign. When Schmeling refused, Warren started disciplinary proceedings against him for violating church rules barring sex outside of marriage, which the church defines as only between a man and woman.
On Friday, Schmeling will face a disciplinary hearing – structured much like a trial – where a committee of 12 ELCA members will decide whether he can remain an ordained minister in the church.
The congregation in the mansion-lined hills just east of downtown Atlanta has been put squarely in the center of the debate over gay clergy, the restrictions they face within the ELCA and, albeit indirectly, gay marriage.
The ELCA maintains it's simply following its own rules. Schmeling and his supporters say they hope his case will lead to changes in those rules, making the church more accepting of relationships involving its gay pastors.
"I want people who have felt excluded by the church for their sexual orientation to know God loves them," Schmeling said in an interview with The Associated Press last weekend. "We've always been a church that emphasizes the unconditional love of God, so this policy runs counter to that."
Many other mainline Protestant denominations, including the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion, have been struggling to resolve differences over homosexuality and gay clergy.
Unlike the other major U.S. Lutheran body, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, the 4.9 million-member ELCA allows openly gay clergy. Schmeling told both his bishop and congregation about his sexual orientation before he was chosen pastor.
ELCA spokesman John Brooks said that if a single, heterosexual pastor told his bishop that he was in a relationship outside of marriage and he refused to repent, he likely would face a similar disciplinary proceedings. When Warren announced in August that he was taking action against Schmeling, he said he wouldn't comment until a verdict is rendered.
In 2005, delegates to an ELCA national meeting rejected a proposal to allow sexually active gays and lesbians to be ordained as pastors if they were in committed, long-term relationships. Opponents, including Schmeling, say the policy discriminates against gay clergy by forcing them to refrain from sex, while heterosexuals only have to wait for marriage.
"ELCA says it welcomes GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender) people but that welcome stops at committed relationships," said Phil Soucy, spokesman of Lutherans Concerned, a group fighting for full inclusion of gays in the church.
Schmeling's disciplinary hearing, which will be closed to the public, is expected to run through the weekend. Afterward, the 12-person committee – comprising of both clergy and lay people, including two members chosen by Schmeling – will have a couple weeks to decide whether to take action, which could include a suspension or removal from ordained ministry.
Schmeling's congregation doesn't even like to consider where that would land them.
"We want Bradley to be our pastor and we want to remain in ELCA," congregation president Laura Crawley said. "If he's removed from the roster, he'll continue as pastor."
While that could lead to disciplinary actions against St. John's, the married mother of two said she hopes the church will reform itself by understanding that "we want our pastors to live in the world with us."
To prepare himself for the hearing, Schmeling said he has been praying more and relying on his partner's support.
"He understands the need to stand up for this gospel of love and inclusion," Schmeling said.
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