Durango (Colo.) Herald, 6 Jul 03

Local Lutherans in tizzy when lesbians are called "parents"

By Patricia Miller
Herald Staff Writer

Durango’s Christ the King Lutheran Church has seen a year’s rancor start with the Rev. Darin N. Johnson’s use of a single word, "parents," during the baptism of the couple’s second son last summer. The strife that resulted angered conservatives and led lesbians to feel rejected, prompting some within both camps to leave.

Church officials say Christ the King, 495 Florida Road, has survived, though. The church has enlisted roughly the same number of new members as had left; it has established a committee to manage the controversy; and it has begun to move beyond the fight while welcoming gays. Classes for new members now include an explicit discussion of the church’s stand on sexuality. Some lesbians who left have returned.

"Our identity as a place that welcomes all people -- period -- is much stronger," Johnson said.

But the fight also played a role in the breakup of the lesbian couple. And it has left other homosexual people feeling hurt, according to a former church council president, herself a lesbian, a Durango-area resident of 24 years who asked not to be identified by name for fear of retribution.

"It was a modern witch hunt," the ex-president said.

The baptism came soon after the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America -- of which Christ the King is part -- began a nationwide study of sexuality, same-sex unions and the ordination of gay men and women.

The church, with 5.2 million members, was formed in 1988 by the merger of three Lutheran churches. It is distinct from the older and more conservative Lutheran Church -- the Missouri Synod, with 2.5 million members.

Christ the King held study forums in which 60 to 80 people participated.

"Conversations were calm," Johnson said. "Perspectives were diverse. But it brought up how Lutherans traditionally use and understand Scriptures."

The Evangelical Lutherans see Scripture as inspired and authoritative, but not infallible, according to Johnson.

"Some people in the congregation didn’t understand that or agree with that view of Scripture," Johnson said. "I think that’s probably the prime reason people left the church rather than their differences on sexuality. The baptism highlighted the significance of what we?d been discussing. We started to notice that this is about people, and people from Durango, rather than abstract."

Prayer for parents

Against this background, the language used during the baptism grated on members of the congregation. They had understood that the Lutheran Church officially accepted homosexuality but did not affirm it. They decided that -- by using the word "parents" -- the pastor had moved from accepting to affirming.

The former council president said the lesbian couple had approached the church’s senior pastor, the Rev. John E. Knutson, before the baptism to ask if it should take place in private to avoid problems. "He said, ‘No. Everybody’s welcome,’" the ex-president said.

Knutson is on sabbatical, and attempts to reach him last week for comment were unsuccessful.

The clergy didn’t foresee the criticism.

"Pastor John and I didn’t see any problem, so we were pretty surprised," Johnson said. "We thought that anyone who’s raising a child would need prayer and support.

"Using the word ‘parents’ in the ceremony did upset a few people. But I don’t know what other word I would have used."

Two members of the congregation who objected were Marian and Harold Steinhoff, who left Christ the King in mid-August.

Mr. Steinhoff, who recently resigned as president of the Durango Food Bank, said he and his wife had been disturbed by the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America for 10 years.

"I think they’re departing from Scripture to justify things they would like to approve," he said. "... Lesbians joined our church, and that was OK. I loved them. I hugged them. But I thought their homosexual behavior was not within God’s will according to Scripture."

Mr. Steinhoff said he and his wife have moved to the Durango Christian Church, 255 E. 11th St.

’They called us sinners’

The ex-president said that after the baptism, many members of the congregation came to see the clergy in increasing numbers.

"Come autumn the frenzy started," she said. "People started coming to Church Council carrying their Bibles when no one had bothered to come before.

"We set out to keep things orderly and loving, but they called us unrepentant sinners -- said we shouldn’t be allowed to be leaders. Another member of the Church Council is a lesbian, too, and we took this abuse for three or four months."

Church council meetings became heated, said Dale Wingeleth, another council member.

"I was surprised at the intense feelings that I heard people express," he said. "People were saying we should be judging homosexuals as sinners."

The church asked the advice of Bishop Allan Bjornberg, with the Evangelical Lutherans? Rocky Mountain Synod. His assistant for congregational ministries, Dan Bollman, came to hear the congregation’s concerns in the early autumn.

Meanwhile, conservatives formed their own group, called John 8, which met inside the church. The name refers to the eighth book of the Gospel of John, verses 31 and 32 (from the Revised Standard version): "Jesus then said ... ‘If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.’"

The ex-president said, "It was ghastly. They advertised the group as a Bible study, but it was to study an extremely conservative book about the Bible. To go to their meetings, you had to sign an agreement that you thought homosexuality was wrong."

John 8 members voluntarily stopped demanding the signed agreement after a while, Johnson said. The largest attendance was 12 to 14 parishioners.

Reconciliation begins

Eventually, gay church members started to show up at John 8 meetings.

"They were well-received," Johnson said. "They were people of integrity and spiritual maturity who came together, and it was enlightening at a level deeper than the brain."

Among those who went was the ex-president.

"I listened a lot," she said. "Later, at one of the John 8 meetings when it got friendly, I told them that the lesbians in this church have no agenda. We only want to be able to do anything anyone else can do in the church."

The John 8 group has since evolved into a steering committee to manage the controversy. Knutson has picked people from both sides to serve on it. Randy Geist, manager of J.C. Penney and four-year member of the Church Council, sees benefits from the trouble.

"As a church, we’re definitely ahead of where we were before this all blew up," Geist said. "Any time there’s a conflict, with side-taking, and you move past it, you move toward healing."

Johnson, too, is determined to look ahead.

"As problematic as it was, Pastor John and I saw it as an opportunity, that God would bring something good out of it, and he did," he said. "Now we’re clearer on what we’re about, and about 60 new members have joined.

"I’m impressed by how this congregation reaches out to the community. Forty to 50 organizations use our facility every month. Maintaining that presence invites the diversity of Durango here. And if we say, ‘All are welcome,’ we’re challenged to mean it."

For her part, the ex-president is getting counseling.

"It was a rough battle, and I need help," she said. "I never dreamed that as a white female I would be persecuted. And that’s not a bad thing because I can sympathize with more people. We got hate mail and criticism, but the loving majority of our congregation and the strong leadership carried us through."