Former members of a Lutheran church in the Town of Tonawanda at odds with their denomination over Biblical interpretations and other cultural differences – including sexual orientation and abortion – left their Eggert Road building earlier this month in favor of worshipping in their pastor’s living room.
After a September vote, more than 120 members of Augustana Lutheran Church broke from Evangelical Lutheran Church in America after services on Oct. 6 and renamed their congregation Church of the Apostles, Lutheran, according to former Augustana pastor Rev. Troy Mulvaine, who has been holding services in the living room of his South Lawn Court home in the town.
It’s the latest of several area congregations breaking with national denominations, including an Episcopal church that relocated to a former synagogue on Eggert.
“The reason we left is that our bishop told us that we don’t know what the scriptures really say,” said Mulvaine, who was Augustana’s pastor for 10 years.
Specifically, Mulvaine said he objected to the church allowing unbaptized people to receive Holy Communion, to church health insurance paying for abortion and to changes in the worship book that eliminated references to “Father.”
Upstate New York Synod Bishop Marie Jerge disputed Mulvaine’s claims as false allegations and “issues of perception.” She said the Evangelical Lutheran Church – while taking the Scriptures seriously – does not consider them the “inherent word of God,” which some groups disagree with.
“We don’t believe that any human being can fully understand all the depths that God has in mind in one single interpretation, so sometimes there are different approaches,” she said. “And they didn’t like that.”
Divisiveness leading up to such splits has not been uncommon recently in churches where liberal and conservative ideologies clash over hot-button social issues.
Most notably, the rector and most of the members of the former St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Parish on Brighton Road at Fries Road across from Kenmore East High School, once the diocese’s largest congregation, broke from the diocese in 2008 and is now known as St. Bartholomew’s Anglican Pro-Cathedral. The Brighton Road building now houses the Episcopal diocese offices.
Five churches in Erie and Niagara counties have left the Evangelical Lutheran Church within the last 10 years, leaving 44 in its Niagara Frontier Conference, Jerge said.
“Something’s wrong,” Mulvaine said. “Something’s just not right.”
Mulvaine said Augustana members in April initially voted overwhelmingly to leave but that vote was declared unconstitutional by Jerge because she said she wasn’t given proper notice.
Another vote was scheduled for three months later. But in the meantime, Mulvaine said a former pastor who now lives in Florida called members individually to urge them to stay with the Evangelical Lutherans. Members who rarely attended services but were in favor of staying with the national denomination were persuaded to turn out for the September vote, Mulvaine said. The breakaway group came up just short of its needed two-thirds majority.
“With all the politicking, we lost by four votes,” he said.
Mulvaine said he had promised to leave the congregation if members voted to stay.
“The next day, people start calling me and said, ‘Well, we were duped. We were told you weren’t going to leave and nothing was going to change,’ ” said Mulvaine.
Mulvaine said 120 people – some of whom had been life members for 50 or 60 years – resigned from the church with him, and 50 of them sat on folding chairs last Sunday during a service in his living room. It’s where they will worship while they search for a permanent home. Jerge said Augustana had the same number of worshippers Sunday.
“The church isn’t the building,” Mulvaine said. “People didn’t think we would really leave. They thought we were too in love with the building.”
In another sign of bad blood between the groups, Mulvaine said late last week that while he was expecting a piano tuner, he was visited by a town building inspector tipped off that Mulvaine was planning a large gathering.
“Boy, that’s sad,” he said of the tipster. “Can’t you just let us go?”
Carl Heimiller, the town’s supervising building inspector, said town code does not allow homes to be used for worship services. Mulvaine has been issued a violation notice, Heimiller said.
Mulvaine denied receiving any orders to cease holding services in his home and plans to go ahead with Sunday’s service. He said he has been looking at properties in the town, including closed schools and funeral homes currently for sale, as a permanent home.
Meanwhile, Augustana’s pastoral duties were taken over on Oct. 7 by Pastor John Scarafia, who urged diplomacy and conciliation between the groups.
“We need to be healing,” he said. “We need to be rebuilding.”
Jerge, who is based in Syracuse, also said she encouraged that approach during visits as the rift widened in recent months.
“I tried to help them to have conversations with each other and not get into shouting matches or calling each other names,” she said.
Mulvaine said he was saddened to leave the building where he had overseen $250,000 in upgrades over his 10 years at the helm, including installation of handicap accessibility, air conditioning and an elevator. The new congregation has joined an informal group of Lutheran churches called the North American Lutheran Church, Mulvaine said.
“It was the best 10 years of my life,” he said. “That’s my family. They’ve been very, very good to me. But the last few months it got really personal.”
Jerge said Augustana will continue on with its ministry under Scarafia’s leadership.
“I trust that they are acting on their faith,” Jerge said of the splinter group. “But the truth is, people have walked into and out of churches for hundreds of years on matters of belief.”