The Rev. Larry Barksdale, pastor of St. Matthew Lutheran Church since 2003, resigned Sunday, three weeks after the church voted 99-54 to stay in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
Barksdale resigned at the beginning of the monthly council meeting, held the second Sunday of the month, following the 11 a.m. service.
The decision was set in motion in August, when the national church passed various resolutions about human sexuality. Among the resolutions: partnered, committed gay people can serve as clergy at ELCA churches that want to hire them. Though not binding on individuals or congregations, the decision bothered Barksdale personally. He believes scripture is clearly against homosexuality, and he found himself at odds with the direction of the denomination.
“It was a matter of time,” Barksdale said Sunday of his resignation. “It became very apparent at the time of the vote (on Jan. 24). Theologically and philosophically, we were no longer on the same page. We reached a critical impasse of what it means to be the church.”
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His resignation was effective Sunday. He said he has no immediate plans to serve another congregation but is praying for his future and for the future of St. Matthew.
Barksdale is married with two children.
Barksdale wrote a letter to his congregation following the national meeting in Minneapolis. It spelled out five directions that, in his view, St. Matthew could go. One option was to sever ties with the denomination.
A two-thirds majority was required to leave the ELCA in the vote taken Jan. 24. If it had passed, there would have been a requisite 90-day waiting period. Then a second vote would be taken, with a two-thirds majority required.
A second clergyman serves St. Matthew and will stay. He is the Rev. Bill Flippin, the first African-American minister to serve at the Macon Road church. He was the associate under Barksdale and was installed in November 2008.
“I’m continuing on the current track until November,” said Flippin, referring to the ending of his original employment agreement.
He and Barksdale don’t see eye-to-eye on the issue of homosexuality and gay clergy, and Flippin didn’t think the St. Matthew vote should have happened, either.
“I want to continue to be available, to listen and to assess and see what’s needed,” he said.
First on his mind is prayer and conversation among members on all sides of the issue, he added. Next Sunday, the Rev. Darrel Peterson from the Southeastern Synod — based in Atlanta — is scheduled to visit St. Matthew to answer questions.
Despite the St. Matthew’s recent troubles, Flippin is upbeat about its future. He believes a majority of the congregation will stay.
“I’m very optimistic,” Flippin said.
The Synod, which covers Georgia, Mississippi, Tennessee and Alabama, has six churches that have passed the first “yes” vote to leave the ELCA. One of them, in Haralson, has cleared the second vote. All are in Georgia. The Synod is led by Bishop Julian Gordy, elected in 2007. In an interview with the Ledger-Enquirer before the vote at St. Matthew, Gordy said the denomination had been studying and discussing human sexuality, including boundaries for ordination, for many years.
Gordy said in a phone interview Sunday that the Synod will continue to be in conversation with the people at St. Matthew. "We will be very focused on helping them through this," he said.
Most mainline denominations, including the ELCA, are wrestling with the issue. For instance, in 2003, the Episcopal Church elected then consecrated its first openly gay bishop, the Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson of the Diocese of New Hampshire.
Barksdale said Sunday the whole situation could have been avoided had the national church not taken the action it did.
“This has been a huge tragedy,” he said.