It was a typical Sunday scene and, in its own way, a small act of defiance.
Members of St. John's Lutheran Church last weekend filed by their pastor, hugging him and exchanging jokes. Gleeful children rushed past toward a treats-laden table.
Many in the 350-member Atlanta congregation say they don't plan to let the Rev. Bradley E. Schmeling leave the pulpit Aug. 15, as ordered last week by an Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) disciplinary committee because he is in a gay relationship.
Defying the order could end Atlanta's oldest Lutheran church affiliation with the ELCA, cutting off the small church and its members from the large denomination's resources, including community service programs, hymn books and access to synod officials for guidance on legal, financial and spiritual matters.
St. John's members hope it doesn't come to that. They want the denomination to change its rules about sexually active gay clergy at its biennial churchwide assembly in Chicago next August, just days before Schmeling is to be removed from the clergy.
"We are not an activist church, even though we can stand for issues of justice," said Charles Fox, who occasionally assists Schmeling at Sunday worship. "He exemplifies the kind of love and empathy I envision Christ to have had."
The committee, which basically served as the jury in a closed-door trial, found Schmeling guilty of breaking the denomination's rules for having a same-sex relationship. However, the committee also called those rules "at least bad policy" and recommended changing them, which the ELCA could consider doing at its biennial meeting.
St. John's -- a congregation that gathers in a 1914 Tudor-style manor in one of Atlanta's historic neighborhoods -- now finds itself in the middle of a campaign to allow sexually active gays to be pastors in the largest Lutheran denomination in the United States.
"It hasn't been a problem to explain Brad or his relationship to our children as much as what the church wants to do," said Fox, a married father of a 10-year-old boy and an 8-year-old girl.
The ELCA, which has 4.9 million members, allows openly gay clergy, but only if they are celibate. Still, many Lutheran churches support ordaining partnered gays and perform same-sex blessing ceremonies despite the policy. The same debate over how biblical verses on gay relationships should be interpreted is tearing at many mainline Protestant groups...
At the ELCA's last national meeting in 2005, a proposal to allow synods to decide if they would accept a pastor in a same-sex relationship failed after getting nearly half the 1,000 votes, short of the required two-thirds majority.
Nearly half of the Lutheran congregations in the country were comfortable enough with the idea of allowing a gay or lesbian pastor to be in a committed relationship that they think it should be up to each synod to decide how to handle it. By some definitions that means that these millions of church-goers are no longer "Christian.