St. Paul Pioneer Press, 8 Apr 01

Resolute church awaits reaction to ordination

Possible sanctions range from censure to ELCA expulsion

STEPHEN SCOTT
STAFF WRITER

Few churches can vote unanimously on the color of new choir robes. St. Paul-Reformation Lutheran Church voted 176-0 to ordain a pastor who is in a committed lesbian relationship.

The church's call to Anita Hill might invite censure, suspension or expulsion from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. But members of the St. Paul congregation at 100 N. Oxford St. believe no other choice remained.

``This congregation finally came to a place to say we have to move forward as a matter of justice, recognizing gay and lesbian people as equal among equals before the cross of Christ,'' Hill said. ``Gay and lesbian people called to serve should be able to proceed like anyone else to meet the requirements of service.''

Hill has served on St. Paul-Reformation's pastoral staff for most of the past 18 years. Because she is in a committed relationship, she was not granted entrance into the customary ELCA channels that lead to ordination.

St. Paul-Reformation, which spent seven years unsuccessfully seeking a way to ordain her within ELCA guidelines, will do so itself April 28 and install her the next day as pastor.

``We hope and pray to continue to be in membership of the ELCA,'' said John Whalen, co-chairman of St. Paul-Reformation's church council. ``But that is out of our hands. We had to do what the Gospel would have us do. Others will do what they have to do.''

The constitution of the ELCA gives authority to the bishop of the St. Paul Area Synod or the Synod Council to decide what action to take. Options range from doing nothing to public or private censure to filing charges, which would initiate a process similar to a court case. Three congregations of the synod may also join to file charges.

St. Paul Area Bishop Mark Hanson, who has arranged several recent public meetings for members of the synod to discuss the issue, says he can't predict what will happen after the ordination.

``My commitment has been to create a context where we can talk and we can listen,'' Hanson said. ``I am very much in a posture of listening. The perplexing thing for me is that I hear people say this is the church-defining, church-dividing issue of the day. I thought it was the Gospel. That has always defined us.

``That we are going to have profound disagreements doesn't scare me because the church for 2,000 years has struggled with who are the insiders and outsiders, who is deemed clean and unclean. Often the controversies of the early church were about inclusion and exclusion, as was the case for the Gentiles.''

Christian responses to homosexuality vary widely. Some consider it a sin, based on scriptural injunctions. Others welcome gays and lesbians to the whole of church life, including ordination, based on the body of Christ encompassing all believers.

Some congregations minister intentionally to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, while other ministries seek to ``transform'' those with a homosexual orientation.

``How much room can there be in our denominations for us all to exist?'' Hill asked. ``Even the faculty amongst our Lutheran seminaries hold different views about some of these matters, so can those of us in the congregation not do the same? Does there have to be a winner or loser around this?''

The synod's response so far has not focused on winners or losers, or on taking action.

``Whether consensus is possible or desirable isn't as pressing for me as whether we can create a church in which we are speaking with one another, not about each other,'' Hanson said.

Gay and lesbian people have joined a procession of women, minorities and children in the past century who have sought inclusion where there has long been exclusion, Hanson said.

``The tensions get heightened in this conversation because of the infusion of the issues of sexuality,'' he said. ``Within the church, we haven't created an environment where we can talk very comfortably about this gift of sexuality, part of God's creation which we're asked to be stewards of.

``If we haven't learned as heterosexual people how to talk about that with all its fragility and mystery and power, then it's going to be very hard to know how to talk with others who have a different sexual orientation.''

The ELCA has not barred commitment ceremonies for gay or lesbian couples, and gay and lesbian pastors may be ordained. But the ELCA forbids ordination unless those ``who are homosexual in their self-understanding'' abstain from ``homosexual sexual relationships.'' In other words, they must remain celibate.

Hill participated in the first ELCA ordination of noncelibate gay and lesbian pastors at two churches in San Francisco in 1990. The congregations were removed from membership in the denomination in 1995.

``This is going to be a much bigger deal here in Minnesota in some ways than the San Francisco ordinations were,'' said Emily Eastwood, a member of St. Paul-Reformation. ``People tend to write off California, just out there on the West Coast doing their weird, liberal thing.''

Peg Brendan says St. Paul-Reformation is often viewed as the lunatic fringe of the Lutheran church. ``We're everyday Lutherans,'' she said.

Michael Cobbler, an ELCA pastor from Indiana who will preach at Hill's ordination, says it's time to take this step.

``I know this decision did not come easily for the congregation or Anita herself. It came about with years of seeking discernment. These are folk who love the Lord and love the church.

``But it's like skydiving, Amen? You can talk to other people who have skydived, you can read about it, you can create committees to see what the impact of skydiving is, but sooner or later you gotta jump out of the plane.''