Minneapolis Star Tribune, 28 Apr 01

Lesbian's ordination Saturday in Twin Cities
will break church law

 

Martha Sawyer Allen / Star Tribune

At the conclusion of last Sunday's service, the Rev. Paul Tidemann took the deacon's stole off Anita Hill and laid it on the brass communion rail at the front of St. Paul-Reformation Lutheran Church.

It was a subtle act, but the congregation erupted in clapping and celebration. It meant that the next time Hill would help Tidemann lead a worship service she would be wearing the traditional stole of an ordained clergy person.

On Saturday, people from California to Boston are coming. They're going to sing, dance, laugh, worship and ordain a woman to ministry.

However, when they place the red clergy stole around Hill's neck they'll be breaking church law.

Members of St. Paul-Reformation are going outside Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) "visions and expectations" for ministry candidates because Hill is a lesbian in a committed relationship, and the ELCA says that homosexual clergy must be celibate.

Congregation members say that only after they exhausted every effort within the ELCA to get an exception to officially ordain her, they voted unanimously -- albeit reluctantly -- to go outside the rules and name her to ministry.

Their actions have garnered national attention. One sitting bishop will attend, as will three retired bishops. They will include internationally renowned Pauline expert, the Rev. Krister Stendahl, and St. Paul's own Lowell Erdahl, given the honorary title of bishop emeritus when he retired from the St. Paul Synod.

The entire congregation is taking part in the two-day festivities. Overflow crowds are expected, and the gala tonight has been sold out for weeks.

However, it also has generated controversy and conflict within the denomination. On April 11 the national ELCA Church Council took the unusual step of issuing a "reminder" to bishops of their roles and duties within the church. Bishop Mark Hanson, the St. Paul ELCA Synod bishop, will not take part.

Congregation members have received hate mail and they are ready for protesters outside the church today.

Mission, order

In a way, this event is a careful balancing act between two potent forces within the church, two essential understandings of the very meaning of the church and its role in the world.

On the one hand, the people of "St. Paul-Ref," as they call themselves, see themselves as living out the gospel mandate to love thy neighbor -- to include all people in the full life of the church. They argue that a clergy candidate like Hill, who is in a union blessed by the church and who also meets all the requirements for ministry, should be allowed to be an ELCA clergy member in full standing, regardless of her sexual orientation.

On the other hand, the church expects that anyone who calls himself or herself an ELCA clergyperson has met its common standards for ministry.

Bishop Donald McCoid, chairman of the ELCA Council of Bishops, said, "Will we become a federation of synods, or hold together with unity in the ELCA in a common understanding of our constitution, as we are faithful to the scriptures and what it means to be part of a common fellowship of believers?"

Yet McCoid, bishop of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Synod, is careful not to condemn a fellow bishop, Bishop Paul W. Egertson, of the South California (West) Synod, who is coming to help ordain Hill.

"I wish he would not participate. It's not something he should do, but I have a deep appreciation for him and his belief that this is part of his calling."

Egertson said in an e-mail interview that the congregation invited him to participate because of "my long-standing advocacy for the full acceptance of gay and lesbian people in the life and ministry of this church and my identity as a bishop."

He stands in "solidarity" with St. Paul-Reformation, he said, because "they are committing an intentional act of ecclesiastical disobedience in order to protest the policy precluding gay and lesbian people in committed relationships as a class of people from being ordained. By accepting their invitation, I join that protest."

Hill's views

For her part, Hill says she wishes she could just go about her calling of living out the gospel of Christ. She has done dozens of media interviews, answered thousands of questions, and the pressure is building. Still, she and her partner, Janelle Bussert, remain in good spirits.

Bussert said she is eagerly taking part in this public proclamation, and she is proud of her partner. "I stand firmly and squarely with Anita in her sense of mission," she said.

Hill takes solace in the parable of the woman who goes to the unjust judge. As the Book of Luke tells it, Jesus told the woman to keep going back until she received justice, to not lose heart and to keep praying. "I said to God, well, OK, I'll keep bothering him," she said.

"It seems to me that is what we at St. Paul-Reformation have been and continue to be about," she continued, "praying always and not losing heart and seeking justice for all people in the house of God. We are called to perseverance and faithfulness as God's people."

Twenty-five years ago, a woman who had been a nun became the first person to tell Hill that she had the gift of ministry. In Ann Arbor, Mich., her friend and campus minister, the Rev. Gordon Ward, encouraged her to go to seminary.

"She has a lot of courage," Ward said from his home in Boulder, Colo. "She was a part of my own growth in understanding and my own commitment to this particular social justice issue. I'm thrilled to be a part of this significant moment in her life."

Hill came to St. Paul in 1983 to help run Wingspan Ministries, St. Paul-Reformation's ministry to gays and lesbians, a position she held until 1994 when she became pastoral minister for the congregation. In 1995 she began the formal process of entering ELCA clergy candidacy. She met Bussert at St. Paul-Reformation, and five years ago they had a blessing ceremony at the church, complete with a dance that lasted for hours in the church basement.

For 25 years Hill has been an active advocate for gays and lesbians in the church. She has, by her own count, given hundreds of talks to church groups.

She's accustomed to the reactions she still receives sometimes and jokes that "you could do a whole stand-up routine on some of the comments I've gotten."

Some, of course, haven't been so funny. She remembers receiving an Easter card from a Lutheran pastor's wife in Michigan. The woman had written "you are leading people down the path to hell. Stop this madness. Satan has a hold of you. Happy Easter, Yours in Christ."

Yet she said she knows this is a difficult issue for many faithful people and she always tries to meet them on their terms. She adds, "It's important for congregations to hear theological voices that come from more than one place. Often gay and lesbian people get over-characterized in the popular mind as being only sexual people and nothing about spirituality. Anyone's sexuality grows out of love at best, and comes at a time when perhaps words don't do any longer and touch becomes the thing that helps connect us together. That has to do with spirituality and sexuality."

A long journey

This has not been an easy path for St. Paul-Reformation. Congregation members tell stories of lengthy discussions at soup-and-bread suppers where they tugged at their faith, hearts and minds to understand the issues.

Twenty years ago they discussed how to be open and welcoming as a congregation and remain true to their understandings of the Lutheran confessions. Emily Eastwood, who is chair of the Wingspan steering committee, said that when gay and lesbian people in the congregation began telling their personal stories of how they were rejected by the church, "even the more conservative members were moved. These are people who are their friends."

The congregation spent almost four years working with St. Paul Area Synod leaders to find a way to persuade the national church to exempt Hill from the clergy rules so she could be regularly ordained in the ELCA.

The congregation finally concluded that the denomination wasn't going to move on their timetable, members said, so they voted unanimously to call her and hold the ordination gala.

Erdahl said he was most impressed with the unanimity of the congregation's vote. "It's almost unbelievable that a congregation would vote unanimously for anything," he said with a chuckle based on his lifetime of dealing with churches.

Erdahl said he gladly accepted Hill's invitation to take part in today's ceremony. "I just think the time has come to move ahead on this score."

It took years for Erdahl to come to his present ideas, he said. "I can remember writing to a clergy candidate when I was bishop, saying, 'I don't condemn you, you didn't choose your orientation, but you must be celibate.'"

But, Erdahl said, when he realized that many gays and lesbians seeking ordination also sought a way for a blessing on their committed relationships he didn't see why they should be excluded from the ministry.

Clergy roster

The Extraordinary Candidacy Project is a national group that follows ELCA procedures in screening candidates, but it allows for candidates who are openly gay or lesbian and sexually active. They recommend candidates for the Lutheran Lesbian Gay Ministry roster, who offer their candidates to congregations looking for ministers. After today Hill will not be an official ELCA clergy member, but she was interviewed by the Extraordinary Candidacy Project and is listed on the Lutheran Lesbian Gay Ministry Roster.

Cindy Crane, Midwest chairman of the project, said Hill is the 17th person on their national roster, and the 12th to be hired by a congregation.

Crane, who is a member of St. Paul-Reformation, said there is "incredible excitement in the congregation. There's a tremendous energy building up to this. [Sunday] attendance has been way up. It's hard to find a place to park!"

Eastwood, who is in charge of planning the event, said, "this has been one of the most enriching experiences of my life. The spirit of the place is vibrant and alive. Every Sunday when church is over no one leaves.

"This is a big family event."

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