Gay Minister's Church Trial Begins

By Alan Cooperman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 20, 2007

Members of the oldest Lutheran congregation in Atlanta washed their pastor's feet -- and he washed theirs -- in a gesture of mutual support as he prepared to go before a tribunal that may defrock him for living with another man.

The church trial of the Rev. Bradley E. Schmeling, 44, began yesterday behind closed doors at a downtown Atlanta hotel and was scheduled to continue through the weekend.

It is the latest in a series of similar trials in several mainline Protestant denominations, where growing numbers of congregations are installing gay men and lesbians as pastors despite rules against non-celibate homosexuals in the pulpit.

The prosecutions -- which follow procedures similar to those of civil courts, including testimony by witnesses for both sides -- have become one of the most emotional fronts in the battle over sexuality and scripture within American Christianity.

Schmeling's flock at St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church, a 135-year-old congregation on the edge of Atlanta's historic Druid Hills neighborhood, is strongly backing him. After the foot-washing service Thursday evening, members signed up for a continuous vigil in their sanctuary. Some wrote prayers on multicolored strips of cloth that are to be woven into a tapestry.

"We were always aware of his orientation, and the search committee did not find it to be a problem whatsoever" when Schmeling was hired in 2000, said Ann Gerondelis, 48, an architect who is active in the congregation. "He preaches an inclusive gospel, and he is an inspiration to us all."

Under the rules of the 4.9 million-member Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), pastors are prohibited from having sexual relationships outside of marriage. Gay men and lesbians can serve as ordained clergy as long as they remain celibate. Schmeling told the congregation and his bishop that he was not in a relationship in 2000, and he promised to let them know if that changed.

Last year, it did. After Schmeling informed the congregation that he had fallen in love and entered a "committed" same-sex relationship, Bishop Ronald B. Warren asked him to resign from the clergy. When he refused, the bishop brought formal charges.

Both Schmeling and Warren declined to comment on the case, saying they had agreed not to speak publicly during the trial. But according to parishioners and church officials, the case presents tough choices for everyone involved.

Schmeling's supporters hope the 12-member disciplinary committee hearing the case will disregard the church's rulebook and find him innocent, despite his open relationship with the Rev. Darin Easler, a former ELCA minister who now belongs to the United Church of Christ, which allows non-celibate gay clergy.

But such verdicts have proved a short-term fix in other denominations. When a Methodist jury acquitted a lesbian minister in California in 2004, conservatives responded by tightening the ban on "self-avowed, practicing" gay clergy throughout the United Methodist Church.

The panel in Atlanta has 15 days to render a decision. If it removes Schmeling from the ELCA's clergy, St. John's parishioners will face a dilemma. They could keep him on as pastor, but would then face a risk that the bishop could seek to suspend or expel the entire congregation.

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