New York Times, 19 July 1990

Lutherans Punish 2 Churches for Gay Ordinations


SAN FRANCISCO, July 18 -- After an extraordinary public hearing, thought to be the first by a church on the issue of ordaining homosexuals, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America suspended two congregations today for ordaining an openly gay men and two lesbians.

The five-year suspensions, which fall short of the expulsions that were possible, come at a time when virtually all mainstream denominations are wrestling with homosexual ordination. The decision of the disciplinary committee, characterized anguish at the need to impose punishment, reflects that struggle.

The committee chastised the national church for having "ignored homosexual people and their story of faith," urged the two congregations "to continue to be a voice a a witness" and begged the church to reconsider its policy over the next five years.

If church policy remains the same and if the two congregations remain in violation of it five years from now, they will be expelled, the committee said. That decision drew a written dissent from 5 of the panel's 14 members.

Practical Impact is Limited

Until 1995, then, the suspensions have little practical impact on the two congregations, where the gay pastors wil continue their ministry without recognition from the national church.

The three ministers, Jeff Johnson at First United Lutheran Church and Ruth Frost and Phyllis Zillhart at St. Francis Lutheran Church, were ordained last winter, providing the first real crisis for the 5.3-million-member Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The church, the fourth-largest denomination in the United States, was created in 1988 by the merger of three Lutheran groups.

Like many denominations, the three groups had tolerated gay clergy as long as they were silent, or at least oblique, about their sexuality. And like many others before, him, Mr. Johnson had been certified for the ministry by a bishop who knew of his sexual preference but chose not to make it an issue.

But the merged church took a more explicit approach, asking Mr. Johnson to take a pledge of lifelong celibacy and withdrawing his certification by the predecessor church when he would not. In response, a number of Bay Area Lutheran clergy banded together to press the issue by finding a congregation that would risk expulsion from the church by ordaining Mr. Johnson and by recruiting a lesbian candidate for another congregation.

Plea for Reconsideration

The national and regional bishops of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America urged the group to reconsider. But First United and St. Francis chose to go forward with the renegade ordinations on last Jan. 20.

At the three-day hearing here, witnesses for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America argued that the church constitution had been violated when the congregations had ordained candidates not on the church's "call roster," which excludes "practicing" homosexuals. The two congregations acknowledged that they had technically violated the constitution, but argued that they were fostering the higher goal of the church to be an "inclusive fellowship."

The church called only four witnesses, including Bishop Lyle Miller of the Sierra Pacific Synod, Mr. Johnson's childhood pastor and longtime friend, who had with great ambivalence filed the charges against the two congregations. The four witnesses, all church officials, spoke of the chaos implicit in permitting congregations to ordain unauthorized candidates.

The two congregations called about 30 witnesses. Among them were pastors who described the routine practice of ordaining homosexuals as long as they disguised their sexuality, and gay men and women who said they had left the church because it insisted on such silence.

Testimony of Anguish

Mr. Johnson, Ms. Frost and Ms. Zillhart were among the witnesses. They described the process of publicly ackknowledging their homosexuality to church officials, being spurned and then finding congregations willing to let them work openly. ALso testifying were the senior pastors of the two accused congregations, the Rev. James DeLange of St. Francis, where half the 130 members are openly homosexual, and the Rev. John Frykman of First United, where not of the 100 members except Mr. Johnson is openly gay.

Both Mr. DeLange and Mr. Frykman said their congregations had acted in the best tradition of the Lutheran Church, which was born in a 16th Century act of protest. They also commended the disciplinary committee for agreeing to an extended airing of the issue, rather than hewing to the consitutional violation, which would have been resolved in minutes.