A gay Atlanta pastor and his partner who have been at the center of a battle over the treatment of gay clergy by the nation's largest Lutheran denomination are being reinstated to the denomination's clergy roster, church officials announced Tuesday.
The Rev. Bradley Schmeling and his partner, the Rev. Darin Easler, have been approved for reinstatement, the Chicago-based Evangelical Lutheran Church in America said in a news release. The approval came roughly eight months after the denomination voted to allow gays and lesbians in committed relationships to serve as clergy, and just weeks after the ELCA's church council officially revised the church's policy on gay ministers.
Schmeling, who serves as pastor of St. John's Lutheran Church in Atlanta, was removed from the church's clergy roster in 2007 for being in a same-sex relationship with Easler. A disciplinary committee ruled that Schmeling was violating an ELCA policy regarding the sexual conduct of pastors.
"I'm grateful that this journey has come full circle and that the church has changed its policy," Schmeling said Tuesday.
"I think the church saw the gifts and the abilities of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people and saw that the spirit was calling them into ministry and wanted to create a way for people to serve," he said.
The reinstatement will become effective "once the paperwork has been filed," which should happen in the coming days or weeks, he said.
At their biennial national convention in August, ELCA leaders called for revisions to ministry policy documents, making it possible for "eligible Lutherans in publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships" to serve as clergy, the church said in the statement. The ELCA Church Council adopted those revisions April 10.
The candidacy committee of the ELCA Southeastern Synod in Atlanta met two weeks later and approved Schmeling's request for reinstatement.
Even though Schmeling had been removed from the ELCA clergy roster, he remained pastor at St. John's, putting the church in violation of ELCA guidelines, said the Rev. H. Julian Gordy, bishop of the ELCA Southeastern Synod.
"There are people in our church that believe that pastors in publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships should not serve as pastors in this church," Gordy said in the church statement. "But the assembly said that while we were not in agreement on this, congregations could call persons in such relationship to serve as pastors, and St. John has chosen to do this."
Despite the opposition from some to the change in church policy, "I believe that we will learn to live in this new reality," Gordy said.
"This congregation has always been clear in its affirmation and support of our relationship," Schmeling said. "When I told them that I had met my partner for life, they threw us a party. When they heard that we were both reinstated to the clergy roster, there was a spontaneous standing ovation in church on Sunday."
Ann Gerondelis, 51, who has attended St. John's since 1981, said the congregation never saw Schmeling any differently after he was removed from the clergy roll, but they were still thrilled to hear he would be reinstated.
"I'm very excited to be a part of the ELCA at this time," she said. "The ELCA has now shown it is committed to unity. ... We're bound together with people who may not see things the same way we do but that's an important part of our journey."
Easler said he left United Redeemer Lutheran Church in Zumbrota, Minn., in 2003 because he disagreed with the church's policy and also because he wanted to minister to people in a hospital and hospice setting. He and Schmeling met at a church conference in Minnesota in 2004, and he moved to Atlanta to be with Schmeling the following year.
Easler was removed from the clergy roster in 2006 after having been without a parish for three years, the church said in a statement. He transferred to the United Church of Christ, which is a full communion partner of the ELCA, and worked in hospice care as a bereavement coordinator.
He recently applied to the candidacy committee of the ELCA's Southeastern Minnesota Synod in Rochester and was approved April 30. He plans to continue his hospice work under the auspices of the ELCA.
"I just feel so grateful to be able to come back to my church home and church family, and I'm grateful to be able to share with the church both my love and my gifts for ministry but also the love for my partner," Easler said.
Schmeling said the reinstatement is good news for others as well.
"I'm happy for the many people who always hoped to be ordained as pastors now have an open pathway before them," he said.
Evangelical Lutheran Church of America: http://www.elca.org
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