San Francisco Chronicle, 28 Apr 00

Bishop Cites Berkeley Lutherans

Defiant congregation hired openly gay priest

Don Lattin, Chronicle Religion Writer
Friday, April 28, 2000


BERKELEY -- University Lutheran Chapel in Berkeley has been censured by Bishop Robert Mattheis for hiring an openly gay pastor in violation of national church rules against noncelibate homosexual clergy.

The immediate effect of the bishop's letter of censure, which Mattheis personally delivered during a Wednesday night meeting at the College Avenue congregation, will be the loss of $24,000 in campus ministry funds from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).

The church showdown has been expected since November, when the congregation installed the Rev. Jeff Johnson, a longtime Lutheran gay rights activist, as its pastor, even though Johnson is not listed on an official roster of eligible clergy candidates.

While accusing the Berkeley congregation of ``ecclesiastical disobedience,'' Mattheis made it clear that he personally disagrees with the national church ban on sexually active gay and lesbian clergy. Nevertheless, he said, the congregation's ``unilateral action . . . challenges the integrity of this church's governing documents and its process of moral deliberation.''

Johnson said he wished Mattheis would ``choose to act in a way that would advance the cause of justice for all people.''

``Instead, he has chosen to support the current policy of discrimination against sexual minority people,'' the gay priest said. ``His action places him alongside an ignominious crowd of leaders throughout history who choose shortsighted allegiance to the rules of their time.''

Johnson called rules against gay clergy ``a perverse scandal,'' comparable to past policies that excluded blacks and women from ordination. Mattheis gave the congregation until January to reconsider its decision to have Johnson as its pastor. At that time, he said he will file disciplinary charges that could result in University Lutheran Chapel being expelled from the national denomination.

In a letter to congregation President Kathy Gee, Mattheis said, ``It is my hope that the ELCA will soon come to that point when it is ready to receive gay and lesbian pastors living in covenanted relationships onto the clergy rooster.''

At the same time, Mattheis said the Berkeley church's decision to move on its own ``does not reveal a trust that the Holy Spirit is at work in the deliberative and consultative process of this church.''

There will not be a national churchwide assembly of the ELCA until August 2001.

Similar clashes over gay marriage and homosexual clergy face the Methodist, Episcopal and Presbyterian churches -- all of which hold national conventions over the next five months.

In an interview yesterday, Mattheis said he hopes the Lutheran church will not ``risk focusing on this issue to the exclusion of all other concerns.''

``We have been obsessed with issues of sexuality,'' he said. ``It has consumed all our time and passion.''

People on both sides of the gay rights issue are leaving the church over the controversy. Since Mattheis assumed leadership of Sierra-Pacific synod of the ELCA in 1994, the number of Lutherans in the synod has dropped from 83,000 to 78,000, and the number of congregations has gone from 218 to 214.

Nationally, membership in the ELCA has dropped from 5.8 million to 5.2 million.

In 1990, the ELCA suspended, and later expelled two San Francisco congregations, St. Francis and First United Lutheran churches, for hiring Johnson, along with two lesbian ministers, the Revs. Ruth Frost and Phyllis Zillhart.

After Mattheis was installed in 1994 as the new Lutheran bishop for Northern California and Nevada, he declined to take disciplinary action against St. Paul's Lutheran Church in Oakland for hiring an openly gay pastor, the Rev. Ross Merkel.

Mattheis said the difference between the two cases is that Merkel was already serving as a Lutheran pastor when he publicly announced he was gay.

That same year, in a further attempt to push for gay rights in the church, Lutheran congregations in the East Bay elected Merkel as their conference dean, while San Francisco churches did the same for Johnson.

Mattheis allowed Merkel and Johnson to hold those posts. But he did not give them the responsibility for installing pastors or performing other bishoplike duties of conference deans.