San Francisco Chronicle, 5 Aug 01

Changing Times

Protestant church doors starting to open for gay clergy;
Lutheran gathering offers next test

Don Lattin, Chronicle Religion Writer
Sunday, August 5, 2001


Gays have been fighting for a place behind the Protestant pulpit for more than two decades, but the summer of 2001 could be the turning point in that crusade.

In June, the national policy-making convention of the Presbyterian Church voted to remove a requirement that church leaders practice "fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness."

Next up is the 5.1 million-member Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which begins its five-day convention Wednesday in Indianapolis.

Among the agenda items will be a review of current policies banning the ordination of gays and lesbians who refuse to take a vow of celibacy.

Seasoned church watchers doubt the Lutherans will make as bold a move as the Presbyterians, whose historic vote to amend their church constitution must now be ratified by a majority of that denomination's 171 regional presbyteries.

But in some ways, it doesn't really matter what the Lutherans or Presbyterians do at their national meetings.

American religion changes from the bottom up -- at thousands of neighborhood congregations like Lord of Life Lutheran Church in Ames, Iowa, or Christ Church Lutheran, a typical West Coast congregation in San Francisco's Sunset District.

'Not an issue'?

Earlier this year, the 185 parishioners at Christ Church hired the Rev. Steve Sabin, an openly gay Lutheran preacher from Ames, Iowa.

Christ Church is not at the forefront of gay Christian activism. Sabin estimates that 10 percent of the members are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.

"They just didn't see sexual orientation as an issue," he said.

But it is an issue at the national level.

All of the 10,851 congregations in the ELCA are supposed to consider clergy from an official roster of qualified candidates.

Sabin was kicked off that roster in 1998, after a bishop in Iowa asked him if he was homosexual and in a sexual relationship.

"I said, 'Yes' and 'Yes,' " Sabin recalled.

Many of the 249 members of Lord of Life Lutheran Church in Ames already knew their pastor had undergone a radical change in his sleeping arrangements.

They had already been through a lot with him, and they stood by their pastor, in defiance of the bishop.

Parish dramas

It's these kind of parish dramas that are slowly opening the doors of church leadership to gay and lesbian Christians.

"There has been a radical cultural shift in the past 10 years," said the Rev. Jeff Johnson, the gay pastor at the 95-member University Lutheran Chapel in Berkeley. "Attitudes about gays and lesbians have changed in the workplace, schools and other civic entities. For the church to continue to stall seems archaic and irrelevant."

In 1990, the ELCA suspended and later expelled two San Francisco churches, St. Francis and First United, for hiring Johnson and two lesbian ministers.

Today, Christ Lutheran and five other ELCA churches in Oakland, Sacramento and Fairfax have openly gay pastors but remain in the fold.

"The policy hasn't changed, but there seems to be more discretion being given to bishops," Johnson said.

That is also the case in the Episcopal Church and the United Methodist Church in Northern California, where bishops and denominational leaders often look the other way when their congregations host gay weddings, or when a local pastor comes out.

This lack of church discipline angers conservative pastors and lay leaders, who control much larger congregations in such places as Walnut Creek, the South Bay or the Central Valley.

Bishop in a bind

And that puts people like Bishop Robert Mattheis, the spiritual leader of the ELCA's Sierra-Pacific synod, in quite a bind.

Earlier this year, 30 of Mattheis' pastors issued an open letter of complaint about the synod's "preoccupation with advocacy for gay and lesbian issues" and warned that some of them "have actively considered" leaving the ELCA.

Among the signers was the Rev. R. Kevin Murphy, pastor of the 1,475-member St. Matthew Lutheran Church in Walnut Creek, one of the largest Lutheran churches in Northern California.

Murphy was on vacation last week and could not be reached for comment, but another signer, the Rev. Charles Carlson, said the bishop's refusal to crack down on dissident parishes will create "anarchy" in the church.

Carlson, the pastor of the 575-member Gloria Dei Lutheran Church in Sacramento, said his problem is not with gay sex but with congregations that ignore the church constitution and hire clergy not on the official roster.

"What people do in their personal lives is between them and God," he said.

Bishop Mattheis concedes that he is taking a go-very-slow approach to congregations that hire non-rostered gay pastors.

"I've told these congregations that I will make some response by the end of the year," he said.

While the bishop hopes the national church will change its ordination policy and allow gay pastors, he said he would be "very surprised" if it happened at this week's meeting in Indianapolis.

"The majority of our larger congregations are on the more cautious side and resist change," he said. "We don't want to lose our larger churches."