Los Angeles Times, 22 Jan 1990

Churches Give Gay Clergy Emotional Greeting

Religion: Despite a warm welcome of a lesbian couple and a gay man, a fight looms in the Evangelical Lutheran Church to punish -- or possibly expel -- their two congregations.

JOHN DART, RUSSELL CHANDLER
Los Angeles Times

SAN FRANCISCO -- A lesbian couple and an openly gay man newly installed as Lutheran ministers in unauthorized rites began their pastoral duties Sunday-performing a baptism and serving Communion-as an ecclesiastical tug-of-war loomed within their denomination.

After their ordination in a joint ceremony Saturday that defied the Lutheran ban on non-celibate homosexuals becoming clergy, the two women were welcomed at an emotional service Sunday morning at one congregation. A few miles away, the man was welcomed at a similar service.

The two small congregations that installed the three are well aware they might be ejected from the nation's largest Lutheran body for taking the step.

Charges will be filed today against the congregations, according to Bishop Lyle Miller of the Lutheran Church's Sierra Pacific Synod.

"These persons will not be recognized as ordained clergy of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America . . . because they don't meet the criteria of the church," said Miller, who was reached by telephone Sunday at a bishops' conference near Chicago.

The discipline process could take several months, said Miller and the Rev. Joe Wagner, the denomination's ministry executive.

The dissident clergy hope they can force a change in policy despite any setbacks.

"This is not a West Coast fringe phenomenon," said the newly ordained Jeff Johnson, citing pledged support from nearly 80 pastors around the country.

At 100-year-old St. Francis Church in San Francisco, this support was reflected by Assistant Pastor Michael Hiller. In a prayer, he asked that leaders of the 5.3-million-member denomination "may be (moved) by our witness to a greater vision."

Dozens of St. Francis parishioners-both heterosexual and homosexual couples-lined up to hug the Rev. Ruth Frost and the Rev. Phyllis Zillhart in front of the altar. In their new roles as assistant pastors, Frost later baptized an infant girl and Zillhart celebrated the Eucharist.

Addressing the two women during his sermon, Senior Pastor James DeLange, dean of Evangelical Lutheran churches in San Francisco, commiserated with the pair for the animosity they encounter "first because you are women, second because you are lesbians and third because you love each other."

About 100 people attended the service.

At nearby First United Lutheran Church, where Johnson was installed as assistant pastor, Sunday's service was attended by a multi-ethnic, predominantly heterosexual crowd of about 80. In his sermon, guest preacher Joel Workin of North Hollywood said: "There is no turning back."

Softly echoing the words in the back row was Joanne Chadwick. "No turning back. Amen," she said.

Chadwick, an assistant to the bishop in the Evangelical Lutheran Church's Eastern Michigan Synod office, said she was in San Francisco on a personal trip.

"This will be a long fight," Chadwick whispered. "A lot of people want the church to change."

But Bishop Miller, who is based in Oakland, said in a statement issued last week before leaving for the long-planned bishops' retreat that the denomination changes "only after sufficient study, dialogue, prayer and a careful decision-making process."

For having "willfully disregarded" the denomination rules against ordaining avowed homosexuals unwilling to vow celibacy, the congregations could face disciplinary actions ranging from admonition by the bishop or expulsion from the denomination, Miller said.

He added that the defiant actions could cause a backlash.

"Our church cares very much about a ministry to gay and lesbian people, and it's unfortunate . . . that these improper ordinations have happened before our church has done the necessary study and preparation," Miller said. "It's simply unwise and unproductive for those who favor gay ordinations to have done this."

The Fellowship of Confessional Lutherans, about 30 congregations in Northern California, has discussed bringing charges against individual pastors who took part in the ordination, said the Rev. Darrel Deuel, senior pastor of Elk Grove Lutheran Church near Sacramento.

"No plans have been finalized," Deuel said in a telephone interview.

The group believes that "homosexuality is clearly stated in Scripture as sinful. Therefore, the ordinations were out of bounds," Deuel said.

Some California churches may leave the denomination if appropriate action is not taken, Deuel added.

But some sympathy exists for holding off any punishment.

A former Los Angeles-based Lutheran bishop, in a letter last year to presiding Evangelical Lutheran Bishop Herbert Chilstrom, requested leniency for such ordinations.

"We need a long season of patience and searching before we get to any thought of trials and discipline," wrote the Rev. Stanley E. Olson, now a Santa Barbara pastor. Olson headed a five-state synod for the old Lutheran Church in America, one of the predecessor bodies to the 2-year- old Evangelical Lutheran Church. Olson was runner-up to Miller in the election for Northern California bishop in the merged church.

While Olson did not expect Miller or the church to recognize unauthorized ordinations officially, he argued for acceptance of such clergy, claiming that as bishop he knew "closeted" homosexual pastors who were "sincere, everyday kind of Lutherans."

Olson said in an interview that he still hopes the church will eventually "recognize such ordinations properly."

Wagner, the ministry executive, said Sunday that homosexuality "is a difficult issue that the whole of society is wrestling with. It seems right that the church should be struggling with it, too."
 

John Dart reported from San Francisco and Russell Chandler from Los Angeles.