St. Paul Pioneer Press, 29 Apr 01

For Anita Hill, ordination a dream come true

Although its national organization prohibits ordaining lesbian pastors who do not vow celibacy, a St. Paul Lutheran congregation welcomes its new pastor in style.



Anita Hill wasn't given to having dreams, in the literal sense.

But she had a vivid one while taking an afternoon nap eight years ago. In it, she was being ordained as a Lutheran pastor by then-Bishop Lowell Erdahl.

That dream, and a host of others, came true for Hill on Saturday.

As Erdahl, three other bishops and a throng of clergy laid hands upon her, Hill was ordained as pastor of St. Paul-Reformation Lutheran Church.

"I feel like I'm cycling through emotions from tears to laughter to joy and am sort of beside myself,'' said Hill, who has served 18 years as a staff member and pastoral minister at St. Paul-Reformation. "I hadn't expected until we finally had the vote in December that this ordination would finally take place.''

St. Paul-Reformation is a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which prohibits the ordination of gay or lesbian pastors who do not vow celibacy. Hill, for 18 years a staff member and pastoral minister at St. Paul-Reformation, lives in a committed relationship and therefore was not approved for ordination by the ELCA.

So the congregation voted unanimously in December to call and ordain her.

Saturday afternoon's ordination took on the air of a wedding in which those in attendance were all parents of the bride. Tears began at the beginning of the opening hymn, "O Praise the Gracious Power.'' Lutherans sang as Lutherans do: robustly. Handbell ringers circled the sanctuary and -- with the organ and choir -- raised a sound befitting any such liturgical celebration, although this was considered an "irregular ordination,'' the fourth of its kind in the ELCA.

"There may be some who understand this service to be outside the church,'' said the Rev. Michael Cobber of Chesterton, Ind. "But we are the church. We're here, and we have no fear.''

Cobber, an ELCA pastor, brought the fervor of a Baptist preacher to Saturday's sermon, which frequently roused the congregation of a thousand. Their numbers were such that the service was held at Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, which has a sanctuary three times larger than that of nearby St. Paul-Reformation. Even so, 250 of them watched the service on a large-screen TV in an overflow seating area downstairs.

"The significance of this is that this congregation has walked through every available process in the ELCA to find a way within the system to allow this,'' said Bishop Paul Egertson of the church's Southern California West Synod. "The others have pleaded for change, but this one went through the whole process of the synod council, church council, national church division for ministry and conference of bishops. The whole decision-making process was used, and the answer was no.

"If you're going to do an act of ecclesiastical or civil disobedience, one of the provisions is that you try every legitimate avenue first. In this case, that has been done.''

At the moment of ordination, St. Paul-Reformation pastor Paul Tidemann, Erdahl, Egertson and retired bishops Krister Stendahl and Stanley Olson laid hands upon Hill. She disappeared among a throng of white robes and red stoles as 155 other pastors gathered around the altar and spilled halfway down the center aisle. Most, but not all, were Lutheran clergy.

When the ceremony ended after 2 1/4 hours, the congregation joined in raucous applause for the 17th time, breaking into shouts and rhythmic clapping as a crowd might at a sporting event.

The front rows of the sanctuary were filled by members of St. Paul-Reformation, who voted 176-0 to make this day happen.

"There has been excitement among them over the past few months,'' Hill said. "I have sensed the excitement with which people participate in worship. When worship is over on Sunday mornings, they stay and talk for an hour. I expect we'll be tired when this weekend is done, but this has strengthened our community.''

The congregation will install Hill as pastor at its regular worship service this morning. It held a celebration Saturday night at the Science Museum of Minnesota.

St. Paul-Reformation knows it could face censure for issuing its pastoral call to Hill and was braced Saturday for possible protests. A half-dozen uniformed St. Paul police officers were on hand, but the only incidents were a flat tire in front of the church and an auto accident down the street. No protesters showed up.

Those who oppose the ordination of gay and lesbian pastors often do so because of their interpretation of the Bible and the belief that homosexuality is sinful.

"We stress that we're against all sin: homosexual sin, heterosexual sin, non-sexual sin,'' said Erdahl, retired bishop of the St. Paul Area Synod. "But let's define what is sin.

"What does the Bible say about homosexuality as we understand it today? It does not discuss persons like Anita who are in committed and faithful relationships. To take those few passages that condemn lustful, exploitive sexual activity and apply them to people in committed, faithful relationships, we have come to believe is a misinterpretation, distortion and false witness of the Bible.''

In a prepared statement, St. Paul Area Synod Bishop Mark Hanson and Synod Vice President Janet Thompson said, "The synod council continues to consider the consequences for this ELCA congregation, which has chosen to act contrary to the standards of this church. . . . 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.''