Greenfield church breaks away over gay minister decision

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GREENFIELD - A Lutheran church in Greenfield has disaffiliated itself from the Lutheran Church because of a controversial decision that allows openly gay ministers.

When the Evangelical Lutheran Church In America voted in 2009 to allow gay ministers, critics predicted the move would cause wrenching divisions within the church, the largest Lutheran denomination in the country. It did at St. James Church in Greenfield, which recently voted to affiliate with the more conservative North American Lutheran Church.

"I have a best friend who's gay and a brother who's gay and I love them but I also can't deny what my own faith has taught," said Pastor Larry Gember, St. James Lutheran Church.

The ELCA, with 4.6 million members, is the largest Protestant church in the United States to permit noncelibate gay ministers to serve in the ranks of its clergy, a move the has caused a split among nearly 600 congregations that have disaffiliated.

"The hierarchy of the church, like the hierarchy of the Episcopal Church, decided amongst themselves that this was the way to go without reference to people like me - a regular member of the church," said John Shaw, church member.

While church officials say they're saddened by breakaway congregations, they don't see the issue of gay ministers dividing the church.

"The vast majority of the congregations of the denomination have not moved in the direction that St. James has moved. Many have discussed it but decided that even with their differences, they can stay together," said Bishop Bill Gafkjen, Indiana-Kentucky Lutheran Synod.

St. James' pastor, who originally supported openly gay ministers, says the decision to split from the church has had repercussions. 15 percent of the congregation has left.