Gay pastor becomes unlikely hero

Associated Press
The Rev. Bradley Schmeling, of St. John's Lutheran Church in Atlanta, was ordered to leave the pulpit after admitting to a gay relationship. He refused and is currently appealing the order.

ATLANTA - The tattered cloth scraps started arriving at St. John's Lutheran Church shortly after the Rev. Bradley Schmeling took his stand against the church hierarchy, each with an embroidered or drawn message of support.

"God is with you. Make fire in Atlanta," reads one of the hundreds of prayer cloths. "All love is holy," says another.

The Rev. Schmeling's refusal last year to resign after telling a church bishop he was in a gay relationship has earned him a following.

More than 1,000 supporters joined an online prayer vigil to back the Rev. Schmeling while a disciplinary committee was making its decision to defrock him and order him to vacate his pulpit by Aug. 15. He's appealing the order.

Since the panel's ruling, his congregation's membership has spiked and he came in fourth in the election for the region's next Lutheran bishop.

He was even chosen grand marshal for Sunday's annual gay pride parade in Atlanta, one of the nation's largest gay pride festivals.

"I'm a little embarrassed by all the attention," he said Saturday. "But I feel like it's a chance for me to witness for a church that's open, accepting and loving to everyone. So many churches have only harsh and negative words for gay and lesbian people."

He said that when he became pastor of St. John's seven years ago his gay lifestyle was no secret to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. He was single then, and he said he told Bishop Ronald Warren he'd come forward if his situation changed.

The change came in March 2006, when the Rev. Schmeling decided his relationship with his boyfriend had become a lifelong partnership. He told Bishop Warren, and the bishop promptly asked him to resign.

Bishop Warren called a disciplinary hearing, and the 12-member committee decided that church rules left them no choice but to defrock the Rev. Schmeling and order him out of the pulpit. The denomination's policy excludes gay, bisexual and transgender persons in relationships from the ordained ministry.

However, the committee also angered Bishop Warren by suggesting the church consider reinstating gay clergy forced to step down because of their relationships. It said that, aside from his relationship, the Rev. Schmeling has proved he is worthy of his title.

The denomination could consider making such a change at its churchwide assembly starting Aug. 6 in Chicago.

Church leaders will meet this week to sort through 119 proposals, and roughly half are related to gay and lesbian matters, said John Brooks, a spokesman for the denomination.

"I know of proposals that have come forth arguing the church should change its policy, others saying they don't want a change in policy and others saying we shouldn't deal with this at all," he said. "The church is certainly not of one mind on this."

The Rev. Schmeling won't predict what will happen.

"We're still praying that the church will do the right thing and change the policy. If not, we haven't wanted to speculate," he said. "That's what this process is teaching us: How to live in the moment."

His congregation has stood by him during the dispute.

"From the beginning, the congregation has been very supportive of him - and wanting the church to be inclusive of all people," said Barbara Arne, a 25-year member of the congregation who led the committee that selected the Rev. Schmeling seven years ago.

"Just based on our own congregation, it's quite clear to me that there's a great need for Schmeling's message," she said. "We've had a lot of members that have been very badly hurt by the church, and you'd like to think the church is a place you can turn to for support, no matter who you are."

At a meeting of southeastern Lutheran leaders in Atlanta this month, the Rev. Schmeling joined about 60 colleagues in an election to replace the bishop, who is retiring.

"I told them I yearn for a church that's accepting to everyone," the Rev. Schmeling recalled. "And I hope for a church that could be a model for remaining united even in the face of deep disagreement."

After his surprising fourth-place finish in that election, he said he's now more confident than he was a few months ago.

"I pray the change in policy will come this summer," he says. "But if it doesn't, I know it will come one day."