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
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.
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
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."
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
"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
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
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
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.
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
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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