Minneapolis Star Tribune, 29 Apr 01

More than 1,000 ordain ELCA woman who breaks the rules

Martha Sawyer Allen / Star Tribune

With the national Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) watching, Anita Hill was ordained Saturday in a unique service by more than 1,000 people who crowded into the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in St. Paul.

Hill has satisfied all the requirements for ordination into the ELCA, but she is also a lesbian in a committed relationship and therefore cannot be ordained by the church under its current rules.

Her congregation, St. Paul-Reformation Lutheran Church, just down the street from Redeemer, decided to call her and ordain her outside the rules of the national church. Redeemer offered its sanctuary, which is larger than Reformation's.

The service was animated by spirit, laughter, faith and exhortations for inclusion of the entire people of God in the full life of the church.

More than 200 clergy members, from Roman Catholics to Presbyterians and Baptists -- even a rabbi and a Buddhist -- crowded six-deep around Hill.As she knelt at the altar, the clergy members surrounded her and, with hands on hands on hands, they blessed her ministry.

Then the Rev. Michael Cobbler, an old friend and the preacher for the service, led her to the center of the sanctuary, in the middle of the congregation, and the people, too, with hands on hands on hands, blessed her and ordained her to the ministry. She smiled and cried and literally jumped with joy as she thanked everyone.

The cheering wouldn't stop. Like a crowd cheering for a winning team, the congregation clapped and stomped, shaking the stone church to its foundation.

In his sermon, Cobbler said, "The last time I checked, the grace of God left no one out."

"We are acting as the body of Christ in this place," said the Rev. Paul Tidemann, senior pastor of St. Paul-Reformation.

Tidemann officiated at the service, but he had lots of high-powered help. Four bishops helped him ordain Hill, including Krister Stendahl, a Lutheran theologian and retired bishop of Stockholm, and Lowell Erdahl, bishop emeritus of the St. Paul Area ELCA Synod.

Erdahl said before the service, "I follow Martin Luther. All I can say is 'Here I stand.'"

Bishop Paul Egertson, of the California (West) ELCA Synod, the only sitting bishop in attendance, said before the service, "This is an exciting and positive hour for the church. We can't continue excluding a whole class of people from the ministry" just because of their sexual orientation. "And Anita is such a stunning case," he added.

In some ways the service was reminiscent of the time decades ago when 11 women were ordained to the ministry of the Episcopal Church, in defiance of the national ban of women in the priesthood. They were Known as the Philadelphia Eleven, and their ordinations were credited with helping push Episcopalians into approving women in the ministry the following year.

This may not be an easy ordination for the national ELCA to ignore.

Sue Engh, who is on the ELCA Church Council, said after the service, "I don't think we can ignore this." Although she said she was unable to predict what the national ELCA assembly might do, she "hoped" that it would change its rules on ordination.

The Rev. Barbara Lund blad, a national Lutheran preacher, was a little more cautious. Although she was delighted to take part in the service, she said, "I think it may still be a long time before there's a change" in national ELCA policy.

More than a dozen members of the national ELCA staff came from Chicago for the service, and most of those in vestments at the service were ELCA clergy members.

By going outside the rules for ordination, St. Paul-Reformation will face discipline from St. Paul Synod Bishop Mark Hanson and the St. Paul Synod council. Options range from a public reprimand to removal from the roster of ELCA congregations. Hanson was not at the service.

In a prepared statement released Friday, Hanson and Janet Thompson, synod vice president, said, "We in leadership are seeking to make a decision that is consistent with the ELCA's governing documents and that will also enable us to focus on our mission of making Christ known."