With a laying on of hands, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America on Sunday welcomed into its fold seven openly gay pastors who had until recently been barred from the church’s ministry.
The ceremony at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in San Francisco was the first of several planned since the denomination took a watershed vote at its convention last year to allow noncelibate gay ministers in committed relationships to serve the church.
“Today the church is speaking with a clear voice,” the Rev. Jeff R. Johnson, one of the seven gay pastors participating in the ceremony, said at a news conference just before it began. “All people are welcome here, all people are invited to help lead this church, and all people are loved unconditionally by God.”
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, known as the E.L.C.A., with 4.6 million members, is now the largest Protestant church in the United States to permit noncelibate gay ministers to serve in the ranks of its clergy — an issue that has caused wrenching divisions for it as well as for many other denominations.
Since the church voted last summer to allow noncelibate gay clergy members to serve, 185 congregations have taken the two consecutive votes required to leave the denomination, said Melissa Ramirez Cooper, a spokeswoman for the church, citing a tally that she said was updated monthly. There are 10,396 congregations nationwide.
The Episcopal Church and the United Church of Christ also allow gay ministers. And the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s general assembly voted at its convention earlier this month to do so, though the vote will become church law only if is ratified by a majority of the church’s 173 regional presbyteries. Two smaller Lutheran denominations, the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod and the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, do not ordain ministers in same-sex relationships.
The seven ministers welcomed at the ceremony on Sunday had already been ordained and have been serving at churches or outreach ministries in the San Francisco Bay Area, but they had not been officially recognized on the clergy roster.
“The effect of them being brought onto our roster is they will now be part of our national database of pastors who are available for service in any of our 10,500 churches,” said Bishop Mark W. Holmerud, who leads the Sierra Pacific Synod, which includes San Francisco. He noted that while some congregations were open to consider hiring openly gay ministers, others were not — and each congregation is free to choose.
The Evangelical Lutherans designed Sunday’s special “rite of reconciliation” to mark the formal inclusion of gay ministers who were ordained in “extraordinary rites” that were not recognized by the church but were conducted by a group called Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries. Three more gay pastors will be welcomed at ceremonies in September and October, two in the St. Paul-Minneapolis area and one in Chicago, Ms. Cooper said.
Amalia Vagts, executive director of Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries, said, “It’s been a long and hard journey for a lot of people, and it feels like this is a new beginning in the history of the E.L.C.A.”
She said that all together, there were 46 openly gay ministers who had previously been excluded from the church’s clergy roster and would now be accepted.
The change was made possible after the Churchwide Assembly, the Evangelical Lutherans’ chief legislative body, voted at its meeting in 2009 to allow the ordination of noncelibate gay pastors who are in monogamous relationships. The denomination appointed a task force to study the issue in 2001, and spent the next eight years in debate. In the end, the proposal to permit openly gay clergy members won just two-thirds of the votes, the minimum required for passage.
Some who opposed it are now poised to leave. The Rev. Mark Chavez, director of Lutheran CORE, a coalition of theologically conservative Lutheran churches, said his group expected to form a new denomination, the North American Lutheran Church, in August.
He said of the ceremony on Sunday, “It’s just another steady step taken by the E.L.C.A. to move the denomination further and further away from most Lutheran churches around the world and from the whole Christian church, unfortunately.”
Before the ceremony, one of the gay pastors, the Rev. Megan M. Rohrer, said it had been a long journey from her home in South Dakota — where fellow Lutherans regarded her sexuality as a demon to be exorcised — to being finally welcomed as a minister in the Lutheran church.
“It’s an invitation,” she said of the ceremony, “to join us in the pews every single Sunday, where not a single one of these pastors will care if you agree with us or if you think our families are appropriate. We’ll serve you communion, we’ll pray with you and we’ll visit you in the hospital.”