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Hawley church cuts ties with ELCA

Hawley Lutheran Church will split from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America after members voted overwhelmingly Sunday to leave the denomination.

The vote was the culmination of a yearlong debate sparked in part by the ELCA's 2009 decision to allow gay clergy members who are in same-sex relationships. Previously, the church had permitted gay clergy but required them to remain celibate. In the same year, the ELCA also adopted a controversial statement on human sexuality that opponents said moved the church out of line with biblical teachings.

The decision left the hiring of gay clergy at the discretion of member churches but drew strong reactions nonetheless. Hawley Lutheran began internal debate on the issue in October 2009.

In May 2010, the 1,100-member church held its first vote on leaving the ELCA, which drew support from 58 percent of participants but fell short of the two-thirds majority needed to pass. In September, the church held another vote to leave, which passed with 73 percent support. Sunday's vote - which passed 239-60 - completed the departure.

Hawley Lutheran pastor Jeff Teeples said he's glad to be done with the process, which he said was a difficult one.

"Now, we can move forward," he said.

Hawley Lutheran is one of several area churches that have left the ELCA - the largest Lutheran denomination in the United States with 4.5 million baptized members - after the gay clergy decision. That backlash has produced its own backlash. After Hawley Lutheran's September vote to leave, one Forum letter-writer sarcastically derided the move as out of step with Jesus' teachings.

But Teeples said his church's decision to leave had as much to do with advancing ministry and following Scripture as it did with the sexuality issues.

In a statement issued Sunday, he said it "grieves us that people have associated our decision to leave the ELCA with intolerance, contempt and bigotry, because these attitudes are not the attitude of Jesus, who we follow and love, and not the attitudes we teach or would want to exhibit."

Instead, he said in the statement, the decision to leave "unites us to stand upon the Bible as the final authority in all matters of our faith and life and to proclaim Jesus as the Savior of the world."

The church will join Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ, a denomination with a focus on Scripture that formed earlier this decade in response to concerns about the direction of the ELCA. Since the ELCA decision on gay clergy, it has become something of a harbor for former ELCA churches, picking up hundreds of new congregations.

Opponents of Hawley Lutheran's departure said they're disappointed but saw the move coming. Floyd Synstelien, a former pastor at the church who voted to stay with the ELCA, said he didn't think the debate was a fair one because church leaders favored leaving.

He said proponents of the split were effective in convincing the congregation the ELCA was flawed beyond repair.

"It's disappointing, but we'll move on," he said.

Next Sunday, he said he and his wife - Hawley Lutheran members for nearly two decades - will join another Lutheran church.