World's Fastest-Growing Lutheran Group Severs Ties with U.S., Swedish Partners
The fastest-growing branch of the Lutheran World Federation has officially severed ties with its longtime American and Swedish partners.
The February decision by the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Makane Yesus (EECMY) to terminate its 150-year partnership with the Church of Sweden (CoS) and its 50-year partnership with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) comes after the EECMY tried–and failed–to persuade the other two bodies to reverse recent decisions to ordain gay clergy and bless same-sex unions.
"The EECMY was compelled to engage with an intentional theological reflection and deeper search of Scripture as well as legal and cultural perspectives of the Ethiopian Context," wrote the EECMY in a Feb. 11 statement. "[This] resulted in the writing of Pastoral Call to the two Churches to reverse their decisions, lest the EECMY would be forced to terminate her relationship.... Sadly, the repeated endeavors of the EECMY on this line failed to obtain the expected positive response from the two Churches."
"Being cognizant of the fruitful and long-standing relationships with the ELCA and the CoS, the EECMY expresses her very deep and sincere appreciation of their historic contributions in God's Mission," the statement continued. "We will continue to pray that, one day, the relationships will be restored."
As a result of the breakup, EECMY members will no longer be allowed to receive Holy Communion from ELCA or CoS clergy, who will no longer be invited to preach to EECMY congregations.
ELCA presiding bishop Mark S. Hanson labeled the EECMY's decision as "deeply troubling" but hoped for the "gift of reconciliation." "The action of the [EECMY] diminishes our capacity together to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ, to serve our neighbors and to care for the creation," he said in the ELCA's official response.
"The ELCA is very saddened by this decision," said Rafael Malpica Padilla, executive director for ELCA Global Mission. "[We] are not locking the doors from our side. It is open for when you decide it is time to resume this journey together. ... We will do this not because of doctrinal agreements or consensus, but because the gospel compels us to do so."
"The EECMY is the fastest-growing Lutheran church in the world, this year adding hundreds of thousands as it moves toward the 6 million member mark," writes Robert Benne of Roanoke College. "Its website lists it at 5 million, roughly the size the ELCA once was before its shrinking acts. As the EECMY moves upward to six million, the ELCA spirals downward to four million."
First Things noted that "Ethiopian immigrant missions in the United States, largely ELCA-affiliated, started backing away immediately [after the ELCA approved of gay clergy]. Gemechis Buba, who had been the ELCA's point man in ethnic ministries, resigned and became mission director for the North American Lutheran Church. The NALC has several Ethiopian candidates slated for ordination."
First Things also offered this historical note:
The Mekane Yesus consisted of perhaps twenty thousand Lutherans in 1970. During a decade of persecution in the 1970s by the communist Derg the church grew enormously, while enduring church burnings, arrests of pastors, forced closings of church properties and, most notoriously, the abduction and murder of the sainted general secretary, Gudina Tumsa. By 1997, the Mekane Yesus reported 2.3 million members; the latest figures place the membership at 5.3 million.
CT has regularly reported on Ethiopia, including its recent crackdown on international adoptions and how tribal Christians are fighting child sacrifice.
CT has also regularly reported on Lutherans, including Lutheranism's crisis of authority and a 2009 op-ed by Benne explaining how the ELCA left the great tradition for liberal Protestantism.