Monthly Archives: August 2013

Herbert W Chilstrom Autobiography

Eighteen years after his retirement as the first Presiding Bishop of the ELCA, Herb Chilstrom is still a commanding presence, standing straight and tall with his characteristic white hair. At the recent Churchwide Assembly in Pittsburgh, Herb and wife Corinne always had a cluster of well-wishers hovering around them in hotel lobbies, in the exhibit/lunch hall, or signing books in the registration area. When I had a chance to visit with them, I thanked Herb again for the kind words he offered in support of my forthcoming book, Queer Clergy (see below), and he inscribed a copy of his autobiography for me (A Journey of Grace). We joked that he expected that I should finish the 600 page hardcover book that first day. Well, it took me a week, and I  thoroughly enjoyed reading about the back stories to the early days of the ELCA of which I was only vaguely aware.

Chilstrom was raised in a poor Swedish family on the outskirts of Litchfield, Minnesota, but he became the face of the newly-formed Lutheran denomination called the ELCA. The ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) came into existence on January 1, 1988 as the result of the merger of the two largest Lutheran denominations in the U.S. (LCA & ALC) together with a moderate splinter from the Missouri Synod (AELC). Chilstrom had been the bishop of the Minnesota Conference of the old LCA before his election to be the first presiding bishop of the ELCA.

He steered the fledgling church through rocky shoals during two four-year terms. Immediately, the church was buffeted by conservative theologians who decried the drift toward other mainline denominations such as the UCC, Presbyterian Church, the Episcopal Church, and the Methodists, preferring instead a rightward tilt toward Catholicism, the Missouri Synod, or the burgeoning evangelical community. Among other things, critics decried the democratic, egalitarian structure of the new church and the loss of influence for white, male, pastors.

This was hardly a new battle. The fault line could be traced from the reaction to Enlightenment rationalism, through 19th century Scandinavian lay-revivalism and Darwinian debates, into the modernist-fundamentalist controversies of the early 20th century, and on to the post-WWII culture wars of the religious right.

Within the first years of the new church’s existence, the conservatives seized upon the LGBT quest for full participation as the bogeyman to frighten parishioners in the pews. When the gay community persisted in seeking the church’s blessing, like the Gentile woman in Luke’s gospel, Bishop Chilstrom was conflicted in a classic confrontation of unity versus justice. The frail new church had no deposit of accrued legitimacy, no ballast to keep the ship upright, and the gales whipped her sails. It was all Chilstrom could do to keep the helm from spinning out of control, but he did so, and the church survived her tempestuous early years. His autobiography poignantly revisits his internal wrestling by quoting his own journal entry from the early years:

I continue to wonder how I got into all of this and how I can carry such a load … I feel so divided. I wish so very much that this church was ready to accept [gays and lesbians]. But it isn’t, by any stretch of the imagination. So I must do my duty. I must support denial of ordination for them. I feel very torn apart by it. At times, I even wonder if I should resign because of the conflict between my conscience and the stance I must take as bishop.

It took over two decades for the church to finally break down the barriers to full LGBT participation. At the recent 25th anniversary Churchwide Assembly in Pittsburgh, there was a sense that the church had reached calmer waters. With a new captain at the helm, and a woman at that, the church boldly surged forward, sails unfurled with a fair wind and following seas.

Presiding bishop-elect Liz Eaton appears to be a suitable heir to the progressive and pastoral leadership that has passed from Bishop Herb to Bishop H. George Anderson and, most recently, to Bishop Mark Hanson. Strong leadership has been a hallmark of this church, and the church is excited that Bishop Liz Eaton will continue that legacy.

Awhile ago, I provided Bishop Chilstrom with a copy of the book manuscript for Queer Clergy: A History of Gay and Lesbian Ministry in American Protestantism, and this is what he wrote about it:

“I can’t imagine a more comprehensive review of the journey of various churches in dealing with the issue of inclusion of gay and lesbian persons in the church than Holmen has encompassed in the pages of this book. Though deeply involved in these issues before, during and after my time as presiding bishop of the ELCA, I learned much from this book that had not come to my attention. I commend Queer Clergy to any serious student of the subject. This remarkable book will serve as the definitive text on the subject for a long time to come.”

Click here to Like the my Facebook page and to read the eBook (PDF) Preface to “Queer Clergy.”

Minnesota Presbyterians ordain a gay man

When my wife and I spent our summer vacation volunteering at the ELCA Churchwide Assembly in Pittsburgh, we were called “church geeks.” I guess it’s true. After attending morning worship at my own congregation, St. Barnabas Lutheran of Plymouth, Minnesota, I drove into downtown Minneapolis Sunday afternoon to attend the ordination of Daniel Vigilante at Westminster Presbyterian.

The Southwest edge of downtown Minneapolis boasts a number of high steeple churches that date to the nineteenth century and whose pews have often been occupied by the Minneapolis aristocracy but whose kitchens have offered soup to the poor and homeless: the Roman Catholic Basilica of St. Mary, Central Lutheran, St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral, Hennepin Avenue United Methodist, Plymouth Congregational Church, and … Westminster Presbyterian.

The ornate sanctuary of Westminster today witnessed a first in Minnesota—the ordination of an out gay man as a Presbyterian teaching elder—which is what the Presbyterians call their ministers of word and sacrament. From the comments of an impressive array of speakers, it was obvious that Dan Vigilante is an especially gifted man who is finally allowed to answer his call to the ministry nearly a decade after graduating from Princeton seminary. Since graduation, the New Jersey native has mostly served as director of ministries for youth and young adults at St. Mark Presbyterian Church of Newport Beach, California. The retired moderator of the Presbytery of Los Ranchos, Rev. Dr. Gary Collins, spoke with great respect and affection for Vigilante and his service in Southern California. Here’s a picture of Dan from the website of St. Mark.

Rev. Brian Ellison, whose tenure as executive director of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians is barely a year old, offered a stirring sermon. The Covenant Network as an institution is unique to the Presbyterian Church. Other progressive denominations have long had LGBT advocacy organizations, but they have mostly consisted of gays, lesbians, and a few straight allies operating on the periphery of their denomination. More Light Presbyterians was and is such an organization, but near the end of the twentieth century, the Covenant Network was founded by leaders of the Presbyterian establishment to promote progressive causes and especially LGBT inclusion. When well-heeled allies joined the gay and lesbian pilgrims on the journey toward full inclusion, momentum swelled.

The Twin Cities Presbytery boasts a distinctive history regarding LGBT ordination. Rev. David Bailey Sindt was ordained in this Presbytery before he came out at the 1973 General Assembly (national) by standing on a chair and holding up a sign asking, “Is anyone else out there gay?” More Light Presbyterians remembers that moment as the birth of their movement. In the early ‘90s, St. Olaf grad Lisa Larges sought ordination in this Presbytery, and when she came out to her candidacy committee, the presbytery supported her; only a decision by the Presbyterian ecclesiastical courts prevented her ordination. Toward the end of the century after the General Assembly passed onerous legislation regarding gays and lesbians, the Twin Cities Presbytery issued a formal apology to the gay community and also promised defiance of the policy.

Coincidentally, this Presbytery also played a double role regarding the national church’s decision to allow out gays and lesbians to be ordained.  First, the Presbytery hosted the 2010 General Assembly in Minneapolis that passed enabling legislation, which required ratification by the 173 presbyteries spread across the country. As the presbyteries voted one by one, it became clear that the measure would be ratified, and with one more affirmative vote needed for ratification (with twenty or so presbyteries yet to vote), it was the Twin Cities Presbytery that cast the decisive vote on May 10, 2011.

Welcome Teaching Elder, Rev. Daniel Vigilante. Godspeed.

Queer Clergy to be released

OK, the headline refers to a book title that will soon be published. The book will be a chronicle of the LGBT struggle for acceptance in the church.

In the spring of 2011, I began to research the history behind the journey toward full LGBT inclusion in the mainline, Protestant denominations. From the outset, the book was intended to chronicle the parallel journeys of the United Methodists, ELCA Lutherans, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and the United Church of Christ (UCC).

I visited with a local UCC pastor, who was an out lesbian, for contact suggestions within her denomination. I already had good contacts within my own ELCA. After a geographical move from Northfield, Minnesota to Arlington Heights, Illinois late in the summer, I visited the Gerber-Hart Library of Chicago which stored archival material from the early days of Lutherans Concerned, the Lutheran LGBT advocacy group. Chicago was also the home base of the Methodist advocacy group known as the Reconciling Ministries Network, and I visited their offices and with early Methodist leaders such as Mark Bowman and Morris Floyd. I took a drive up to Madison, Wisconsin for lunch with Steve Webster and Jim Dietrich. Steve had organized the first gathering of gay Methodists way back in 1974. Rev. Amy DeLong corresponded with me about her recent Methodist ecclesiastical trial.

I began to write, and by thanksgiving, I was up to forty pages. During the winter and spring of 2012, Pilgrim Press offered to publish the book, which then carried the title, Gays in the Pulpit. The pages of the manuscript swelled.

I contacted Dr. Louie Crew, the founder of the Episcopal group called Integrity, and he provided valuable information about the Episcopal journey. Later, I contacted Bishop John Shelby Spong. Many are familiar with his voluminous writings, but fewer know about his own role as the leading advocate for LGBT issues within the Episcopal House of Bishops in the late ’80s and ’90s. Professor James D. Anderson served as the editor of the Presbyterian newsletter, More Light Update, for twenty-two years and had written his own article about the history of the Presbyterian journey. My wife and I had dinner with him near his home in Florida, and he loaned me several boxes of archived newsletters. When I traveled to Cleveland to conclude an agreement with Pilgrim Press in the spring, I also visited with UCC LGBT leadership, including Rev. Loey Powell, who had been ordained in 1977. Later, I visited with Rev. Powell and others at the fortieth anniversary celebration of the ordination of Rev. William Johnson that was the theme of the UCC Coalition gathering at Johnson’s alma mater, Elmhurst College, in the Chicago suburbs. I visited with Rev. Johnson, and he provided valuable background information.

In addition to the UCC Coalition gathering in June, the summer of 2012 also included networking at the UMC quadrennial General Conference in Tampa, the biennial Presbyterian General Assembly in Pittsburgh, the Episcopal triennial General Convention in Indianapolis, and the biennial gathering of Lutherans Concerned, renamed to Reconciling Works, in Washington, D.C.

Throughout the process, key subjects of the story have offered great support and background details. They also fact-checked my growing manuscript. The list of helpful correspondents is lengthy.

Though the manuscript was mostly complete by the end of 2012, Pilgrim Press planned the book for inclusion in their fall, 2013 catalog. Thus, the pace slowed considerably during the first half of 2013, but allowed for the addition of new details and revisions. Pilgrim Press suggested a title change, and after receiving comments and suggestions from many of my sources, the title became Queer Clergy, with the pretentious subtitle, A History of Gay and Lesbian Ministry in American Protestantism. The most recent manuscript contains common material plus five, separate sections on each denomination; altogether, the manuscript consists of nearly seven hundred pages, including nearly nine hundred end notes.

Pilgrim Press has just announced that Queer Clergy will be released in November, 2013, and they have also designed the book cover, which is included below.


Queer Clergy cover jpg