LA Times, April 15, 2004

Defying Lutheran Doctrine, Churches Appoint Active Gays to the Ministry

By Larry B. Stammer
Times Staff Writer

Defying their denomination's rule against active homosexuals in ordained ministry, three Lutheran congregations have appointed two gay men and a lesbian to serve as pastors in Hollywood, San Bernardino and Minneapolis.

The first of the three ministers, the Rev. Jennifer Mason, 41, is scheduled to be installed Sunday at Central City Lutheran Mission in San Bernardino, followed by the installation of the Rev. Daniel M. Hooper, 56, at Hollywood Lutheran Church on May 2 and the Rev. Jay Wiesner, 30, at Bethany Lutheran Church in Minneapolis on July 25.

The series of installations are once again focusing attention on divisions within the denomination over how to respond to gay men and lesbians in the clergy.

"The emotions run very high, and I think the risks are very real," said the Rev. Steven Benson, pastor of Bethany Lutheran Church. "The possibilities of deep division, and perhaps even schism, are there," said Benson, who backs the installation.

Bishop Murray D. Finck of the Lutheran Church's Pacific Synod, which includes San Bernardino, said he was surprised and saddened by the San Bernardino mission's decision to call Mason as associate pastor. He urged the mission to reconsider its decision before her scheduled installation.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, the nation's fifth-largest Protestant denomination, with 10,700 affiliated churches and about 5 million members, ordains men and women with homosexual orientations, but requires them to be celibate.

The Hollywood Lutheran Church and the San Bernardino mission would be the first Southern California Evangelical Lutheran bodies to call an openly gay man or lesbian as a pastor.

A decade ago, the denomination expelled two churches in San Francisco for appointing clergy who were living in same-sex relationships. Since then, more than a dozen other churches in the denomination have appointed non-celibate gay men and lesbians as pastors, but the denomination has not tried to expel any additional churches.

The issue of gay men and lesbians in the clergy has split a number of the nation's largest Protestant denominations.

Last month, a United Methodist Church court near Seattle infuriated conservatives when it ruled that a lesbian pastor in an open same-sex relationship had not engaged in any "practices declared by the United Methodist Church to be incompatible with Christian teachings." A week before her trial, the pastor, the Rev. Karen Dammann, had flown to San Francisco with her partner and was married.

Conservatives charged that the jury of pastors had failed to uphold church law against non-celibate homosexual clergy. The controversy will probably be an issue at the United Methodist Church's national General Conference, which opens April 27 in Pittsburgh. The United Methodists are the nation's second-largest Protestant denomination with about 10 million members.

And the Episcopal Church continues to be split by the ordination last November of an openly gay priest as Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire.

The Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson's election as bishop has separated liberals and conservatives within the 2.3-million member Episcopal Church and the 70-million member worldwide Anglican Communion, of which the Episcopal Church is the U.S. branch.

Since Robinson's consecration Nov. 2, nine of the 38 worldwide Anglican provinces or national churches have declared themselves to be in impaired or broken communion with all or part of the Episcopal Church in the United States.

The disputes have provoked impatience among liberals and conservatives. In the Methodist and Lutheran churches, liberals have placed gays and lesbians as pastors despite official prohibitions. In the Episcopal Church, conservatives have flouted church rules by bringing in traditionalist bishops to preside at ordinations or confirmations without getting the required approval of local diocesan bishops.

Conservatives such as the Rev. Christopher Hershman, president of the Evangelical Lutheran Confessing Fellowship, based in Allentown, Pa., said Wednesday that he believed Christianity would eventually split over the authority of Scripture and tradition in the life of the church.

"There are two different kinds of religion under the same denominational banners," Hershman said. "One says what the churches taught for the last 2,000 years. The other approach says the Bible was a witness at its time, and people have moved beyond that to a higher sense of enlightenment."

Diane L. Knippers, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, a conservative nonprofit organization that monitors developments in mainline churches and urges church members to resist what it sees as liberal trends, said she agreed.

"I see increasing polarization," Knippers said. "Among evangelicals in all these denominations [we are] quick to say we have more in common with each other than we do with the left in our own denomination. I'm sure the other side feels the same way."

Indeed, the Rev. Paul Egertson, the former Lutheran bishop in Los Angeles, who plans to preach at Hooper's installation at Hollywood Lutheran Church, said Wednesday that he views such installations as acts that will eventually sweep away church laws against actively gay clergy.

"These are all the breaks in a very fragile dam that looks awfully solid but actually, in my view, is going to just either be taken down by deliberate courageous action by church bodies, or it's going to leak and leak and leak until it's more a sieve than a dam — and finally go away," Egertson said.

Bishop Dean Nelson, who presides over the church in the Los Angeles region, does not plan to participate in Hooper's installation ceremony.

Hooper and Mason were duly ordained as ministers in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. But they were later removed from the official church clergy roster when the church was informed that they were in committed same-sex relationships.