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Conservative Lutherans organize after vote on gays

By KEN KUSMER, Associated Press

lutheran FISHERS, Ind. -- Conservative members of the nation's largest Lutheran denomination voted Saturday to spend the next 12 months deciding whether to split from the church after it liberalized its stance on gay clergy.

About 1,200 people meeting in suburban Indianapolis approved a constitution for the conservative umbrella group Lutheran CORE and a resolution directing its steering committee to report back in a year on whether to stay within the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, form their own denomination or join another.

Some members urged the assembly to more quickly sever ties with the 4.7-million member ELCA after the vote last month to allow gays and lesbians in committed relationships to serve as clergy, dropping a requirement that gay clergy remain celibate.

"Some congregations already have voted to leave ELCA," CORE's chairman, the Rev. Paull Spring of State College, Pa., said at a news conference afterward. "Others have not voted or do not intend to leave ELCA."

Spring and other CORE leaders said their decision a year from now could lead to a reconfiguration of Lutheranism in the United States and Canada.

CORE's meeting this year drew much more interest than the one in 2008, when about 300 people attended. For this year's meeting. CORE had to move to a Roman Catholic church that could hold about 1,000 people, and the group cut off registrations at 1,200.

Participants said they believe the ELCA has reinterpreted Scripture to portray homosexuality more favorably.

"It's totally against what's in the Bible," said Jo Pruett, who said attendance at her ELCA congregation in Rockdale, Texas, has fallen off in recent years because of "waffling" by the denomination. "We're interpreting the Bible to suit society today."

The 71-year-old Spring, a pastor for 44 years, received a standing ovation Friday night when he said the ELCA "has fallen into heresy." On Saturday, he said the ovation was bittersweet.

"That's a very sad thing, to be a church that you belong to your entire life, that now really has fallen in heresy. This has been a great personal struggle," Spring said.

Rob Myallis, 30, of Jonestown, Pa., who was ordained a year ago, said ELCA members must square a gospel of acceptance, giving a warm welcome to everyone no matter what their flaws, with a gospel of repentance, where believers confess their sins.

"God loves you enough to want you to change," Myallis said. "Is our own personal experience more important than Scripture?"

ELCA representatives at the meeting said the charged rhetoric reflected deep pain in the denomination.

"We are in solidarity with everyone in that room on the central doctrines of the Christian church," said Stephen Bouman, the ELCA's director for outreach and mission. "We want to listen to them. We want to tend to their pain."

ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson on Wednesday warned that withholding financial support to protest the gay clergy vote, as CORE leaders have called for, would be devastating to the church.

The loss of financial support weighed on the Rev. Teka Fogi, a native Ethiopian who leads Oromo Christian Fellowship in Kensington, Md. He fears a decrease in giving to ELCA will result in less support for African congregations such as his own. However, he said the denomination had rejected biblical authority when it came to homosexuality.

"The church has gone astray. We cannot condone this kind of apostasy," Fogi said.

Caption: Pastor Al Towberman of Butler, Pa., applauds after a resolution was passed to study splitting off from the nation's largest Lutheran organization, at the Lutheran Coalition for Reform (CORE) conference in Fishers, Ind., Saturday, Sept. 26, 2009. The Lutheran CORE group objects to the Evangelical  Lutheran Church in America's vote last month to allow openly gay people to serve as clergy. Tom Strattman / AP Photo


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