As of March 1, Rev. Gerald Miller, the senior pastor of St. Martin's Church, stepped down from the role he filled for 17 years.
By various accounts, including the bishop who oversees the church, the roots of Miller's resignation lie in a controversial encyclical on human sexuality put out in August 2009 by the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA), which includes St. Martin's on Forest Drive.
Miller declined to talk about his resignation last week, but a staff member at the church said a press release would be put out "in a couple of weeks."
An online copy of the church's March newsletter contains Miller's resignation letter. In the letter, he said he is resigning effective March 1, and that he is in the process of being rostered as a clergy member in the North American Lutheran Church (NALC). NALC is a different Lutheran group, and is considered to be a more conservative Lutheran governing body.
"I give thanks to God for the call to serve at St. Martin's during the past 17 years," Miller said in his resignation letter. "These years have blessed me in so many ways, as the Spirit of God worked in this place and in the lives of so many people. I pray that God will guide and bless St. Martin's in the days ahead that it may continue to bear a faithful witness and to serve others well in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ."
ELCA's stand on human sexuality
In August 2009, the ELCA issued an encyclical titled "Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust.” Encyclicals are social statements that are "theological and teaching documents that assist the ELCA and its members in forming judgments."
The encyclical was passed by two-thirds majority in a 2009 churchwide assembly. The statement, almost 20 pages in length, touches upon various aspects of human sexuality, including marriage, partnerships, sexual abuse, and the sex trade.
Its most controversial aspect is its neutral stand on monogamous same-sex relationships. The encyclical emphasizes that there is no consensus within the church body on this issue, and goes on to spell out four distinct positions held by church members. At one end of the spectrum is the belief that homosexuality is a sin. At the other is the view that same-sex couples must be held to the same high standards and given the same rights as heterosexual couples.
The encyclical, for the first time, allowed churches to elect a gay or lesbian pastor in a committed, monogamous relationship, said Bishop Wolfgang Herz-Lane of the Delaware Maryland Synod, to which St. Martin's belongs.
Herz-Lane pointed out that churches were under no compulsion to appoint gay pastors. There also is no movement within the ELCA to create rites or liturgy around gay marriages, he said. The encyclical simply allows churches to elect gay pastors and recognize same sex relationships if they so wish, he said.
Some members of the church felt that the ELCA has not been clear enough in opposing homosexuality as biblically errant behavior.
Sarah Pease, who was raised Lutheran and joined St. Martin's almost 16 years ago, said she saw the ELCA as wanting to have it both ways. She said these changes were not the only ones that bothered her.
Pease said her daughter had come back from an ELCA-sponsored camp and mentioned changes in wording to the Lord's Prayer.
"It sounded like the Lord's Prayer, but it wasn't," she said. "ELCA is trying to change the words to indicate whether God is male, female or neutral gender. The Bible tells us how to pray, and we can't change it to fit ELCA's goals."
In the historic Annapolis church, started in 1874 by a group of farmers and businessmen, the encyclical stirred up strong debate.
Conservatives, disgruntled with the ELCA's stand on same-sex relationships, sought to break away from the parent body. A first vote was held at St. Martin's in October 2010. Every registered member of the church who has made one donation on record, and has received one communion, is considered a voting member. The voting body received the two-thirds majority it needed to split from the ELCA.
However, the church's bylaws required that the first vote be successfully repeated a second time after 90 days. The second vote was held in January 2011. The church's voting members failed to reach the needed two-thirds majority by a mere three votes, and the church had to stay within the ELCA, the bishop said.
"I was very disappointed with the vote," Pease said. "Almost two-thirds of [St. Martin's] church wants to leave, but can't because of the way ELCA has rules set up."
After both rounds of voting, there were accusations that non-regular members who had turned up just for voting, said Bishop Herz-Lane.
"After the first round, it was the members who wanted to stay with ELCA who said strangers showed up to vote," Herz-Lane said. "Now it is the members who want to split who are unhappy. It is really interesting to see how this is turning out."
There also were complaints the liberal nature of the church's bylaws allows anyone with a single donation on record and single communion to cast a vote.
Dave Edsall, who was the president of the church congregation during two terms in 2007-2008, said an intensive process of narrowing down the registry to actual member voters was conducted prior to the votes.
Whether one agreed with their views or not, voting members had a right to be there, said Herz-Lane. The church's bylaws do not differentiate between the votes of a regular churchgoer and a non-regular one.
"The voting was conducted in a fair, civil manner during both rounds," said the bishop, who was personally present during the votes.
More churches leaving the fold?
St. Martin's in Annapolis is by no means the only church that has sought to break away from the ELCA over this issue. There are 180 member churches in the Delaware Maryland Synod. Four churches have already broken away from the governing body, Herz-Lane said. And two more churches are in the process of voting, he said.
If a church's voting body is successful in obtaining two-thirds majority during two separate votes held 90 days apart, there are still further considerations. If the church was a member of any of the three governing bodies that merged in 1988 to form the ELCA, it does not need any further permission to remove itself.
In all other cases, it needs permission from the synod it belongs to, as well as the ELCA to break away, said Herz-Lane.
The property that the church owns belongs to the congregation. If an exiting church decides to join any other Lutheran governing body, its congregation continues to own any properties associated with the church, Herz-Lane said. If it decides to exist independently, the congregation forfeits all claim to the property, he added.
A trying time for the church
When asked about his reaction to the votes in Annapolis and Rev. Miller's decision to leave, Herz-Lane said, "It is a very sad development, a trying time for the church."
He acknowledged the ELCA human-sexuality encyclical has been quite controversial, more so than other encyclicals it has issued on topics like abortion, poverty and genetics.
Pease said the biggest casualty might be people who are put off by this infighting and will never set foot inside church again.
"A church is not the building. It is its people," she said.
Herz-Lane would not state his personal opinion on the matter. He stressed he was the bishop to all ELCA Lutherans in the Delaware-Maryland Synod, regardless of his or their personal views.
He had high praise for Miller.
"Rev. Miller is a man of great integrity," he said. "He is acting on his conscience and I admire him for that."
Edsall said he appreciates Miller's decision.
"I admire his decision to stand up for his beliefs," he said.
"I hesitate to say that there are two sides in the church now," Edsall added. "The two votes have been taken, and St. Martin's has decided to stay with the ELCA."
Pease said the group wanting to split from the ELCA will be holding separate services in Annapolis Area Christian School on Bestgate Road on Sunday. Rev. Miller will be leading the worship, she added.
"It's actually a joyful time for us," she said. "We're hopeful for what the future holds for us. We're lucky that we have Rev. Miller stepping forward to lead us."