Monthly Archives: January 2014

Cast of Characters: Walter Righter

Rt. Rev. Walter Righter had ably served as bishop of the Iowa Episcopal Diocese for sixteen years, and in 1988 at age 65 he had earned voluntary retirement. Little did the combat veteran of the WWII Battle of the Bulge know that his most significant contribution in conflict would come a decade later.

First came the call from the bishop of the Diocese of Newark, Rt. Rev. John Shelby Spong. Righter was persuaded to join the diocese in 1989 as Spong’s lieutenant, his assistant bishop, but only for a few more years. Spong’s reputation as an outspoken progressive didn’t scare him off; he was moving in that direction himself. At the General Convention of 1979, the “height of homophobia” according to Dr. Louie Crew of Integrity, Bishop Righter had voted with the majority in the House of Bishops in rejecting an LGBT-friendly task force recommendation and resolving, “it is not appropriate for this Church to ordain a practicing homosexual.” At that time, he was certainly not with the bishops who filed a “Statement of Conscience” in dissent. However, a decade later, he was willing to stand with Spong who lit a fire in the Episcopal Church by publicly ordaining an openly gay man just before Christmas in 1989. Bishop Spong had to take care not to trip over the TV cables for the broadcast of the ordination ceremony, which was looped as lead story on CNN every half hour.

As Spong dodged barbs and arrows during 1990, another gay man requested ordination. Better to let Walter do it, in a quiet, private ceremony, Spong and Righter decided. Late in the year, assistant Bishop Righter ordained Barry Stopfel, a partnered gay man, to the diaconate, a non-sacerdotal role that was often a steppingstone to ordination as a priest. Indeed, the following year, Bishop Spong himself ordained Stopfel to the priesthood. About that time, Bishop Righter retired for good.

Four years later in 1995, Episcopal gatekeepers feared that the walls were about to be breached; it was time for a last stand, much like the Germans’ counterattack against the onslaught of the allies in what history has labeled the Battle of the Bulge. With unintended irony, their target would be a survivor of the original Battle of the Bulge. For only the second time in the entire history of the Episcopal Church in America, an Episcopal bishop would be charged with heresy, and Bishop Walter Righter would be the accused, based upon his 1990 ordination of Barry Stopfel.

Why the assistant and not the ringleader? Perhaps for reasons of the statute of limitations. The gatekeepers planned to go after Spong after first dispatching his lieutenant.

“This is ridiculous … It is harassment … not of me, but of the church,” Bishop Richter said when informed of the presentment against him, a formal charge of heresy filed by ten fellow bishops.

On May 18th, 1995 Bishop Righter’s counsel filed his answer, and his supporting brief framed the issue in the broadest possible terms: that the core doctrines of the church did not preclude LGBT ordination. If the conservatives wanted a test case to determine once and for all whether the church could or would ordain LGBT candidates, Bishop Righter and his allies would welcome a frontal attack.

Much like its civil counterpart, the ecclesiastical trial would involve precise, formal procedures. Much like the chronology of a civil trial, the heresy proceedings against Bishop Righter would be drawn out. More than a year would elapse after the filing of charges and still Bishop Righter had not had his day in court.

On February 27, 1996, the latest in a series of pre-trial hearings took place at the Wilmington Cathedral of Hartford, Connecticut. At issue was the central defense argument that mere resolutions, such as the 1979 resolution, were not equivalent to the core doctrines of the church. Local and national press swarmed about the Cathedral, but when the parties and the judges began to meander through the thicket of Episcopal canon law, the mood turned quiet and solemn, with occasional snatches of humor, as often is the case in the verbal jousting of skilled lawyers.

Sitting in the overflow crowd, Barry Stopfel and Will Leckie, partners for eleven years, watched with greater interest than the others. It was Stopfel’s ordination nearly six years earlier and his relationship with Leckie that had triggered the charges against Bishop Righter. Stopfel willingly addressed the press, noting that he and Leckie had decided to sacrifice privacy in order to put their faces on the case, to remove it from abstraction to the personal:

At first I was hesitant to make myself… so visible. But more and more I thought: I want to put a face on this abstract concept. So Will and I just decided the price we were going to pay was to do that.

As in a civil trial, the court adjourned and took the matter under advisement. Both sides were to present further written argument, and a decision was not expected soon.

Nearly three months later, on May 16, 1996, the court announced its decision based upon a 7-1 vote of the sitting judges. Bishop Cabell Tennis of Delaware, a lawyer and member of the court, read a summary of the decision to a breathless crowd. Behind him, a stained glass depiction of the last supper seemed to suggest that Jesus was looking over his shoulder. When Bishop Tennis read that there was “no core doctrine prohibiting the ordination of a non-celibate, homosexual person living in a faithful and committed sexual relationship with a person of the same sex,” the crowd exhaled. The case was over and ordination of LGBT candidates had been countenanced by the highest Episcopal court; unless and until a General Convention would adopt canon law to the contrary, the law of the Episcopal landscape was now settled.

Dr. Louie Crew, who had been on the frontlines from the beginning, had the last word:

After twenty years of struggle, with many tears and prayers, a great moral victory had been won.

Assistant Bishop Walter Righter, drafted into the fray, had his moment in history.

The book is now available!

Well, sort of. It is in and out of availability on Amazon, but it is available directly from the publisherBarnes and NobleCokesbury, or an autographed copy straight from me. Amazon offers it in digital, eBook format for Kindle, and Barnes and Noble offers it for Nook and other epub format devices.

This is the latest installment in the series Cast of characters countdown, which are biographical snippets and summaries of the stories of the iconic pilgrims and prophets on the road to full inclusion who are featured prominently in Queer ClergyAs with all these posts, this is merely a summary of the full story, which is woven into an overarching narrative in the book.

Here’s the list of prior posts:

1968 Troy Perry (founder of the MCC)

1970 Robert Mary Clement (gay priest who marched in the first Gay Pride parade)

1972 William Johnson (first out gay man to be ordained by a traditional denomination)

1974 James Siefkes (Lutheran pastor behind the formation of Lutherans Concerned)

1974 David Bailey Sindt (founder of More Light Presbyterians)

1975 Steve Webster (organized the first gathering of gay Methodists)

1975 Dr. Louie Clay (founder of Episcopal Integrity)

1976 Chris Glaser (longtime Presbyterian activist)

1977 Ellen Marie Barrett (first out lesbian ordained to the Episcopal priesthood)

1978 Loey Powell (early UCC lesbian pastor and activist)

1980 Mark Bowman (founder and leader of RMN and editor of Open Hands Magazine)

1982 Melvin Wheatley (Methodist bishop and straight ally)

1987 Ann B. Day (Led the UCC ONA for twenty years)

1990 Jeff Johnson, Ruth Frost, Phyllis Zillhart (Extraordinarily ordained Lutherans)

1990 John Shelby Spong (leading straight ally in the Episcopal House of Bishops)

1992 Janie Spahr (Presbyterian leader of “That All May Freely Serve”)

1994 Ross Merkel (defrocked Lutheran allowed to remain on call with a “wink-and-a-nod” from his bishop)

 

Jimmy Creech, Greg Dell, Joseph Sprague, Jack Tuell

The Methodist journey, on the national level, has always been one step forward but two steps back. With the first whiff of queer clergy in 1972, the delegates to General Conference responded with “We do not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider this practice to be incompatible with Christian teaching.” A dozen years later, following the ordination of lesbian Joanne Carlson Brown by Bishop Melvin Wheatley, a General Conference resolution decreed, “self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be accepted as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve.” Another dozen years passed, and General Conference delegates responded to “covenant ceremonies,” “rites of blessing,” or “holy unions” by adding a provision in the Social Principles, “Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches.” With painful irony, a UMC pastor noted,

In my not entirely inglorious career, so far, I have blessed motorcycles, packs of dogs, a time capsule, mobile homes, insulation and even a toilet, but were I to bless the union of two Christian people (who were gay or lesbian), it would be an offense, chargeable before a trial.

Over the years, Pastor Jimmy Creech of Nebraska had performed many covenant services without penalty. In September, 1997, he  performed a covenant service in the sanctuary of his church, First United Methodist of Omaha, but he then faced ecclesiastical charges based upon the recently enacted provision in the Social Principles. At his trial in March, 1998, his defense argued that because the prohibition was contained in the Social Principles of the Book of Discipline, it was merely instructive and not prescriptive. After all, the preface clearly stated that Social Principles are “not to be considered church law.” No Methodist had ever been tried for any reason contained within the Social Principles. The jury would agree with Creech’s defense, and he was acquitted in March, 1998.

But then, the Judicial Council, the “Supreme Court” of the UMC, overreached by decreeing that the prohibition contained within the Social Principles “has the effect of church law, notwithstanding its placement in [the Social Principles] and, therefore, governs the conduct of the ministerial office.” That ruling came too late for the first Creech trial, and the jury acquittal was unaffected. But, when Pastor Creech officiated at another covenant ceremony in April of 1999, a second jury convicted him and defrocked him in November of that year. Pastor Gregory Dell of Broadway United Methodist Church of Chicago was also convicted of presiding at a covenant ceremony. The membership of Broadway UMC was 30% gay when Pastor Dell performed a covenant ceremony on September 19, 1998 for two of his parishioners. Bishop Joseph Sprague of the Northern Illinois Annual Conference reluctantly filed charges:

Despite my high regard for the Reverend Dell, as a person of integrity, who possesses an enviable record of pastoral faithfulness and effectiveness, my evaluation of The Reverend Dell as an exceptional pastor, and my own theological and pastoral disagreement with this component of church law, I do hereby file a formal complaint.

Pastor Dell was convicted in March, 1999, and he was suspended from his appointment to Broadway UMC. Initially, the suspension was indefinite, unless Pastor Dell signed a written pledge to refrain from further covenant services, but on appeal, the suspension was limited to one year, and Pastor Dell was not forced to sign a pledge. During his suspension, Pastor Dell served as Executive Director of In All Things Charity, and his colleagues in the Northern Illinois Annual Conference showed support by electing him as a delegate to General Conference 2000. He was reappointed to Broadway UMC by Bishop Sprague after his year-long suspension.

Joseph Sprague and Gred DellBishop Sprague became an outspoken advocate for the cause of full inclusion, and he was arrested for protesting, not once, but twice, at the 2000 General Conference. Bishop Sprague and Pastor Dell are locked arm-in-arm in this photo. Can someone identify others? In 2011, I had the privilege of having breakfast with Pastor Dell, now disabled with Parkinson’s, near his Chicago home. I also spent an hour with Bishop Sprague in a car ride from his speaking engagement in Rockford to O’Hare airport. He stated that signing that complaint against Pastor Dell was the one regret of his episcopacy. The presiding officer at Dell’s ecclesiastical trial was Bishop Jack Tuell. The experience changed him, and he also became an advocate for LGBT inclusion.

I was wrong. It was experience that showed me I was wrong … Ecclesiastically speaking, the decision was correct. As I understand the Spirit of God, it was wrong … I began to see the new thing God is doing.

Bishop Tuell passed away just a week or so ago. I had visited with him at the 2012 General Conference. During the spirited Friday gathering in the Tabernacle, in which Bishop Melvin Talbert and others roused the crowd, frail Bishop Tuell struggled to make his way through the mass of onlookers to reach the dais to stand in solidarity with numerous other active and retired UMC bishops.

The book is now available!

Well, sort of. It is in and out of availability with online vendors, apparently because shipments have been delayed by January weather, but it is available directly from the publisher or an autographed copy straight from me. Amazon offers it in digital, eBook format for Kindle, and Barnes and Noble offers it for Nook and other epub format devices.

This is the latest installment in the series Cast of characters countdown, which are biographical snippets and summaries of the stories of the iconic pilgrims and prophets on the road to full inclusion who are featured prominently in Queer ClergyAs with all these posts, this is merely a summary of the full story, which is woven into an overarching narrative in the book.

Here’s the list of prior posts:

1968 Troy Perry (founder of the MCC)

1970 Robert Mary Clement (gay priest who marched in the first Gay Pride parade)

1972 William Johnson (first out gay man to be ordained by a traditional denomination)

1974 James Siefkes (Lutheran pastor behind the formation of Lutherans Concerned)

1974 David Bailey Sindt (founder of More Light Presbyterians)

1975 Steve Webster (organized the first gathering of gay Methodists)

1975 Dr. Louie Clay (founder of Episcopal Integrity)

1976 Chris Glaser (longtime Presbyterian activist)

1977 Ellen Marie Barrett (first out lesbian ordained to the Episcopal priesthood)

1978 Loey Powell (early UCC lesbian pastor and activist)

1980 Mark Bowman (founder and leader of RMN and editor of Open Hands Magazine)

1982 Melvin Wheatley (Methodist bishop and straight ally)

1987 Ann B. Day (Led the UCC ONA for twenty years)

1990 Jeff Johnson, Ruth Frost, Phyllis Zillhart (Extraordinarily ordained Lutherans)

1990 John Shelby Spong (leading straight ally in the Episcopal House of Bishops)

1992 Janie Spahr (Presbyterian leader of “That All May Freely Serve”)

1994 Ross Merkel (defrocked Lutheran allowed to remain on call with a “wink-and-a-nod” from his bishop)

1996 Walter Righter (Episcopal Bishop whose heresy trial opened the door for queer clergy)

Who are these people?

Have you noticed the piggyback vendors on Amazon? On Queer Clergy’s Amazon page, beneath the book info, there is a clickable line that says, “5 Used from $16.75.” It’s rather startling that there are used books available, since the book has been for sale for less than a week. No, it’s not startling, it’s blatantly false. Listen to the further lies contained on each individual listing: “small bump to one corner in shipping,” “With Light Amount of Wear,” “Very Good with Small Signs of Wear. Pages and Dust Cover in Great Shape” (note: the book is paperback, and there is no dust cover), “Contains remainder mark on bottom outside edge. Some Shelf Wear.”

And then there are the prices that are often low but not always. Who would buy a “used” copy of Queer Clergy listed for $152.25?

A year or so ago, I noticed that all such listings for my earlier book, A Wretched Man, a novel of Paul the apostle, had disappeared. Hmm. I did some checking, and discovered that a church book club had chosen my book and bought up all the copies listed, first on regular Amazon, then went into the piggyback vendors and bought up the rest. I also learned that the book club got all the books they ordered, but it was 3-4 weeks before the last copies arrived from the dubious vendors.

I suspect that these questionable vendors (some are not—some actually do have used books in stock) will simply take an order and then purchase a copy at a wholesale price from one of the wholesale book distributors that are out there. Even then, I’m not sure how they profit since their discount price is often roughly equivalent to the wholesale market price.

Who are these people?

Cast of characters: Ross Merkel

In June 1993, when Bay Area pastor Ross Merkel came out to his Lutheran congregation on the fifteenth anniversary of his ordination, no one blinked. They already knew, but just to make it official, the council immediately convened to reconfirm their call to their pastor. Coming on the heels of the suspension of two congregations who extraordinarily ordained Jeff Johnson, Ruth Frost, and Phyllis Zillhart—in the same ELCA synod—the congregation mirrored the courage of their pastor.

When word filtered to the synod office, a representative of the synod made an impromptu visit to Pastor Merkel.

“You know, if you would just say it’s not true, this’ll go away,” the official said. “Just say that they misunderstood or something.”

“I’m not doing that,” replied Pastor Merkel.

“Well, if you resign, we’ll do everything we can for the congregation.”

“I’m not resigning.”

Later, the Synod office again encouraged him to resign so the congregation wouldn’t have to endure any trauma.

“It’s no trauma for us. This is your trauma, not ours,” Pastor Merkel said. “I’m not resigning. I’ve done nothing wrong. I refuse to resign and just disappear.”

Ecclesiastical charges were brought against Pastor Merkel, and he was defrocked in March, 1994. Just a month later, the Sierra Pacific Synod convened in annual assembly, and a resolution came to the floor to express support for Pastor Merkel and his congregation, St Paul Lutheran of Oakland. It passed, and the newly elected bishop, Robert Mattheis, respected the sentiment of his synod, and he treated the St. Paul pulpit as between calls and open, even though everyone knew Pastor Merkel continued in ministry there, and Bishop Mattheis resisted those who would have placed the congregation on trial. The congregation would not be punished by the ELCA even when they persisted in their continuing call to their now non-rostered pastor, precisely the offense committed by the two San Francisco congregations in 1990. St. Paul Lutheran would remain an ELCA congregation, and Pastor Merkel would remain their minister. His local conference (a synod sub-grouping of ELCA congregations) soon elected him dean. Similarly, Pastor Jeff Johnson of the earlier trial would serve two terms as dean of his conference.

Pastor Diane Bowers attended Pastor Merkel’s congregation while she was pursuing graduate studies, and she wrote the following around the turn of the century:

“The ELCA does not recognize Ross Merkel as a pastor,” Bowers wrote. “He was removed from the roster in 1994. Yet he leads the largest, growing urban ELCA congregation in the East Bay. When new members are asked why they joined the congregation, Ross’ preaching and the inclusive community are the number one reasons given.”

Pastor Merkel was also mentor to a heavily-tattoed straight young woman who bore scars inflicted by the church of her youth, a recovering alcoholic, and one who wanted nothing to do with anything Christian. But she learned Lutheranism from Ross Merkel, and she later attended seminary. Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber is currently an ELCA rock star pastor in high demand for speaking engagements as a “cranky, post-modern gal of the emerging church a la Luther.”

California rite of reception

Pastor Nadia offered the sermon during the 2010 Rite of Reception in which Pastor Merkel and seven other California LGBT clergy were welcomed onto the ELCA roster, including (From left to right): Rev. Dawn Roginski, Rev. Sharon Stalkfleet, Rev. Ross Merkel, Rev. Steve Sabin, Rev. Paul Brenner, Rev. Jeff Johnson. Not pictured: Rev. Craig Minich, Rev. Megan Rohrer. Pastor Nadia concluded her sermon with these words:

“The Kingdom of God is also like right here right now. The kingdom of God is like this very moment in which sinners are reconciled to God and to one another. The kingdom of God is like this very moment where God is making all things new…even this off brand denomination of the ELCA. Because in the end, your calling, and your value in the Kingdom of God comes not from the approval of the other workers but in your having been come-and-gotten by God. It is the pure and unfathomable mercy of God which defines this thing. And nothing, nothing else gets to tell you who you are.”

The book is now available!

Well, sort of. It is in and out of availability on Amazon, but it is available directly from the publisher, Barnes and NobleCokesbury, or an autographed copy straight from me. Amazon offers it in digital, eBook format for Kindle, and Barnes and Noble offers it for Nook and other epub format devices.

This is the latest installment in the series Cast of characters countdown, which are biographical snippets and summaries of the stories of the iconic pilgrims and prophets on the road to full inclusion who are featured prominently in Queer Clergy. As with all these posts, this is merely a summary of the full story, which is woven into an overarching narrative in the book.

Here’s the list of prior posts:

1968 Troy Perry (founder of the MCC)

1970 Robert Mary Clement (gay priest who marched in the first Gay Pride parade)

1972 William Johnson (first out gay man to be ordained by a traditional denomination)

1974 James Siefkes (Lutheran pastor behind the formation of Lutherans Concerned)

1974 David Bailey Sindt (founder of More Light Presbyterians)

1975 Steve Webster (organized the first gathering of gay Methodists)

1975 Dr. Louie Clay (founder of Episcopal Integrity)

1976 Chris Glaser (longtime Presbyterian activist)

1977 Ellen Marie Barrett (first out lesbian ordained to the Episcopal priesthood)

1978 Loey Powell (early UCC lesbian pastor and activist)

1980 Mark Bowman (founder and leader of RMN and editor of Open Hands Magazine)

1982 Melvin Wheatley (Methodist bishop and straight ally)

1987 Ann B. Day (Led the UCC ONA for twenty years)

1990 Jeff Johnson, Ruth Frost, Phyllis Zillhart (Extraordinarily ordained Lutherans)

1990 John Shelby Spong (leading straight ally in the Episcopal House of Bishops)

1992 Janie Spahr (Presbyterian leader of “That All May Freely Serve”)

Janie Spahr: “Lesbyterian”

Janie SpahrIn 1991, Rev. Janie Spahr received a call to return to parish ministry, but then the gatekeepers and an overreaching Presbyterian “Supreme Court” stepped in.

She had been ordained a Presbyterian teaching elder (minister of word and sacrament) in 1974 and had previously served in parish ministry in Pennsylvania and California , but then she came out: first to herself, then her family, and then her congregation. She and her husband amicably divorced and remained close friends (she refers to herself as “wife emerita”), but her Oakland congregation asked her to leave. For the next two years, because her own denomination didn’t quite know what to do with this “lesbyterian,” she worked with the Metropolitan Community Church in San Francisco’s Castro district. In 1982, Pastor Spahr co-founded the Ministry of Light, which became the Spectrum Center, in Marin County, California, and she continued to serve as director.

The Presbytery of the Genesee Valley approved the 1991 call to serve as co-pastor of Downtown United Presbyterian Church of Rochester, NY, but then a coalition of one elder, fourteen pastors, and the sessions of nine congregations of the presbytery brought charges, which ultimately wound their way to the Presbyterian “Supreme Court.” At that time, the policy of the Presbyterian Church was summed up in the “definitive guidance” dating to Bill Silver’s failed attempt at ordination and the actions of the 1978 General Assembly. This 1978 “definitive guidance” stated, “homosexuality is not God’s wish for humanity” and “unrepentant homosexual practice does not accord with the requirements for ordination.” Yet, as part of the same assembly and the same action, a “grandparent clause” had been added that said that the definitive guidance “shall not be used to affect negatively the ordination rights of any United Presbyterian deacon, elder, or minister who has been ordained prior to this date.” Rev. Janie Spahr had been ordained four years “prior to this date.” Despite the clear language and intent of the “grandparent clause,” the ecclesiastical court blocked the call to parish ministry by ruling that the clause only applied to repentant homosexuals, who would receive “amnesty for past acts but not license for present or future acts.”

Undeterred, the congregation called Spahr to be a roving evangelist for the cause of full inclusion, and she became the Presbyterian poster lesbian going forward, building and leading an organization/movement called “That All May Freely Serve.”

In the following decade, Spahr would again have her ministry litigated by the Presbyterian courts, and the reason was her persistent willingness to officiate at same-gender weddings. To summarize the winding trail through the thicket of Presbyterian jurisprudence, the Presbyterian Supreme Court issued its final decree, calling upon her local Presbytery of the Redwoods to censure her. The presbytery meeting was scheduled for May 16, 2012. The presbytery voted 74 to 18 to defy the determination of the highest Presbyterian court. The presbytery would not censure the Rev. Dr. Jane Adams Spahr and instead voted to support her. It would be the most extreme act of ecclesiastical disobedience in the entire history of the PC(USA). Never before had a presbytery openly defied a ruling of the highest court.

At the next General Assembly of the church in Detroit in 2014, marriage equality will be front and center of the plenary sessions.

The book is now available!

This is the sixteenth installment in the series Cast of characters countdown, which are biographical snippets and summaries of the stories of the iconic pilgrims and prophets on the road to full inclusion who are featured prominently in Queer Clergy. As with all these posts, this is merely a summary of the full story, which is woven into an overarching narrative in the book. This is the first installment following the release of Queer Clergy, which is now available here or from your favorite online bookstore.

Here’s the list of prior posts:

1968 Troy Perry (founder of the MCC)

1970 Robert Mary Clement (gay priest who marched in the first Gay Pride parade)

1972 William Johnson (first out gay man to be ordained by a traditional denomination)

1974 James Siefkes (Lutheran pastor behind the formation of Lutherans Concerned)

1974 David Bailey Sindt (founder of More Light Presbyterians)

1975 Steve Webster (organized the first gathering of gay Methodists)

1975 Dr. Louie Clay (founder of Episcopal Integrity)

1976 Chris Glaser (longtime Presbyterian activist)

1977 Ellen Marie Barrett (first out lesbian ordained to the Episcopal priesthood)

1978 Loey Powell (early UCC lesbian pastor and activist)

1980 Mark Bowman (founder and leader of RMN and editor of Open Hands Magazine)

1982 Melvin Wheatley (Methodist bishop and straight ally)

1987 Ann B. Day (Led the UCC ONA for twenty years)

1990 Jeff Johnson, Ruth Frost, Phyllis Zillhart (Extraordinarily ordained Lutherans)

1990 John Shelby Spong (leading straight ally in the Episcopal House of Bishops)

The first review is in!

Under the title, “An incredible story, an incredible resource.”

“Holmen takes on a topic much discussed but seldom told in story with such care and attention.”

“This book is nothing less than magisterial.”

“Holmen does the church an incredible service by offering this book.”

These words come from reviewer, Rev. Clint Schnekloth, on the book’s Amazon page and also on his highly popular Facebook page entitled, “ELCA Clergy” (closed group).

Twin Cities, Northfield, and Chicago appearances

Here are details for the initial author appearances to follow the release of Queer Clergy: A History of Gay and Lesbian Ministry in American Protestantism, which will finally occur in the next couple of days.

Tuesday evening, February 11, 7:00 pm, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, 700 Snelling Avenue S, St Paul, Minnesota

Gloria Dei is the largest church of the St. Paul Area Synod and a Reconciling in Christ congregation. Senior Pastor Bradley Schmeling is an out-gay man who was defrocked following a 2007 ecclesiastical trial in Georgia, where he served an Atlanta congregation. His trial was a significant factor in later ELCA policy revisions. Pastor Bradley and his partner, Pastor Darin Easler, were the first clergy to be reinstated to the ELCA roster following the 2009 revisions to ministry policies, and his call as senior pastor to Gloria Dei, a “high steeple” flagship congregation of the Synod, marked a first.

Saturday morning, February 15, 10:00 am, Bethel Lutheran Church, 1321 North Avenue, Northfield, MN

Bethel Lutheran was our congregation and Northfield was our home for three years. Northfield is a delightful college community, and I was privileged to participate in and speak at numerous community, congregational, and St. Olaf College events. This will be a homecoming.

Friday evening, February 21, 6:00 PM, Augustana Lutheran Hyde Park, 5500 S Woodlawn Ave, Chicago

Augustana Hyde Park is a Reconciling in Christ congregation that serves the Hyde Park neighborhood on the near Southside of Chicago. Augustana also hosts Lutheran Campus Ministries for several colleges, including the University of Chicago, and is located just a block or two away from the Lutheran School of Theology and McCormick Theological Seminary.

Saturday evening, February 22, 5:00-7:00 PM, wine and cheese with the author (public welcome), hosted by Mark Bowman, Director LGBT Religious Archive Network, 5352 N. Kenmore Avenue, #3, Chicago

Mark Bowman is one of the iconic, prophetic figures featured in the book. He was a founder of the Methodist Reconciling Ministries Network and served as its director for many years. As part of his duties, he was editor of the award-winning Open Hands Magazine. More recently, he has been project coordinator for the LGBT Religious Archives Network. He will host a wine and cheese party on Chicago’s Northside, and the public is welcome.

Sunday morning, February 23, 9:00 AM, Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church, 1234 N. Arlington Heights Road, Arlington Heights

I was a member of this Reconciling in Christ congregation during my 2011-12 sojourn in greater Chicago. Our Saviour’s has been especially intentional in its LGBT welcome. Senior pastor Dan Hoeger was called in part because he was a willing straight ally, and the congregation voted overwhelmingly in 2011 that they would host same-gender weddings, two years before marriage equality came to Illinois. It will be good to see old friends.

Sunday afternoon, February 23, 3:00 PM, Congregational UCC (St. John UCC & First United Methodist co-sponsors), 1001 W Kirchhoff Rd, Arlington Heights

Two UCC Open and Affirming congregations, also members of the Chicago Coalition of Welcoming Congregations, and a Methodist Reconciling Ministries congregation will co-sponsor my appearance. St. John UCC was within walking distance of my Arlington Heights home, and Pastor Jeffrey Phillips became a friend and helped with UCC research contacts. I met Congregational UCC pastor Rex Piercy at the 2012 gathering of the UCC Coalition at nearby Elmhurst College, and his church will host this Sunday afternoon event. First United Methodist of Arlington Heights was served by head pastor Bonnie Beckonchrist at that time, but Pastor Bonnie has since retired but continues as Chair of the RMN board of directors.

The wait is (nearly) over & a radio interview

I’ve been frustrated the past couple of months when the target date for release of Queer Clergy moved from Nov 15 to Dec 1 to Dec 30 and then to Jan 15. Thus, I was relieved when I received an email late yesterday from my contact at Pilgrim Press, announcing, “Great news – advance copies of your book are here, so yes, they should be available by Jan. 15.” What has seemed hypothetical and elusive is about to become real.

About the same time, I received an email from Presbyterian clergyman and radio host, Rev. John Shuck. When I first started this blog nearly five years ago, his blog, Shuck and Jive, appeared on my first blog rolls. Last November, he moved his efforts to his new Religion for Life website that was centered around his public radio program of the same name. Religion for Life is carried by a handful of radio stations in Tennesee (Pastor Shuck’s home), Virginia, and Nebraska. Pastor Shuck uses his radio program to conduct interviews, and his impressive list of luminaries includes: Bishop John Shelby Spong, Reza Aslan (the Muslim author of the popular book, The Zealot), Barbara Kingsolver, Marcus Borg, Kathleen Norris, NT Wright, and many others.

And now me.

The email received from Rev. Shuck included a link to the interview he conducted with me that aired a week or two ago that is now available in podcast format. For better or worse, here it is. Click this link to listen to the interview.

Bishop John Shelby Spong: straight ally

Jack SpongIn 1976, the Episcopal Church revised its canons to allow women to be ordained as priests. That same year, the Episcopal Diocese of Newark consecrated Rev. John Shelby Spong to be its bishop. For the next twenty-five years, Bishop Spong would be an outspoken leader of the progressive wing of the Episcopal Church, especially regarding LGBT issues.

Bishop Spong’s advocacy as a straight ally came to the fore in the late 1980s when he penned the progressive view in a running dialogue in the official Episcopal magazine, The Episcopalian. A gay man from Texas responded to the series by challenging the bishop to ordain him. Although there had been previous gay ordinations by sympathetic bishops, this one would prove different. Never a shrinking violet, Bishop Spong encouraged press scrutiny, and he carefully stepped over television camera cables during the December, 1989 ordination. CNN looped the story as its lead every half hour.

The following year was marked by reaction and fallout. “The seeds of anarchy are sown,” charged eight bishops in the Midwest. An “open and deliberate violation … a blatant disregard of the teaching of the Church Catholic,” cried a Texas bishop. A Florida bishop accused Spong of “an act of arrogance,” and the bishop of Northern Indiana suggested Bishop Spong was motivated by “publicity and little else.” At their fall meeting, the House of Bishops voted to disassociate from the ordination, but the four vote margin proved to be much closer than the conservatives expected. Following the vote, Bishop Spong blistered his opponents in a speech to the House of Bishops that he characterized as “forty-five minutes of what surely must be described as passionate purple oratory.” Late that night, two of his fellow bishops separately appeared at his hotel room door to confess that they were closeted gay men, one of whom had actually voted against Bishop Spong. “I am so afraid,” he said, “that I will be exposed. I cover that fear by being negative and harsh on this issue on every public occasion.”

At the 1994 General Convention, conservatives succeeded in watering down a document called the “Pastoral,” and Bishop Spong encountered the tearful leaders of Integrity (including Dr. Louie Crew) in the hallway outside his hotel room. Bishop Spong spent the night penning a response in longhand on a legal notepad. As dawn creeped through his hotel window, he awakened his wife and asked her to go the hotel business center to type up the document, which he called a “Statement of Koinonia.” At the plenary session of the House of Bishops the following day, Bishop Spong asked to raise a point of personal privilege. When the presiding officer recognized him, he strode past the floor microphones and proceeded to the main microphone at the platform, and he began to read the document as his wife and others distributed copies to the floor and to the press and visitors. After a few minutes, the presiding officer attempted to cut him off, but Bishop Spong held up his hand like a traffic cop and continued reading. When he finished, Bishop Mary Adelia McLeod of Vermont stepped forward saying she wanted to sign the document. Other bishops did the same disrupting the business of the day. Eventually eighty-five bishops signed the document, representing the largest dioceses in the nation and the greatest number of church members.

There is so much more to be told, and my book, Queer Clergy, does precisely that. Bishop Spong has written one of the endorsements that appears on the book’s back cover, and he states, “It is a story that had to be written … Obie Holmen tells this story in a gripping and fascinating way.”

This is the fifteenth installment in the series Cast of characters countdown. I will continue to post biographical notes about the iconic pilgrims and prophets on the road to full inclusion who are featured prominently in my soon-to-be-released book, Queer Clergy.

Here’s the list of prior posts:

1968 Troy Perry (founder of the MCC)

1970 Robert Mary Clement (gay priest who marched in the first Gay Pride parade)

1972 William Johnson (first out gay man to be ordained by a traditional denomination)

1974 James Siefkes (Lutheran pastor behind the formation of Lutherans Concerned)

1974 David Bailey Sindt (founder of More Light Presbyterians)

1975 Steve Webster (organized the first gathering of gay Methodists)

1975 Dr. Louie Clay (founder of Episcopal Integrity)

1976 Chris Glaser (longtime Presbyterian activist)

1977 Ellen Marie Barrett (first out lesbian ordained to the Episcopal priesthood)

1978 Loey Powell (early UCC lesbian pastor and activist)

1980 Mark Bowman (founder and leader of RMN and editor of Open Hands Magazine)

1982 Melvin Wheatley (Methodist bishop and straight ally)

1987 Ann B. Day (Led the UCC ONA for twenty years)

1990 Jeff Johnson, Ruth Frost, Phyllis Zillhart (Extraordinarily ordained Lutherans)

Jeff Johnson, Phyllis Zillhart, Ruth Frost: Lutherans on trial

The predecessor bodies of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) did not experience the conflict and controversy over LGBT issues that colored the sister denominations in the ’70s and early ’80s. In the early years, Lutherans Concerned (The Lutheran LGBT advocacy group) maintained a collegial posture toward the church with optimism that the soon-to-be-merged, egalitarian church body would be all things to all people. However, the great expectations that accompanied the formation of the ELCA (Jan 1, 1988 as the result of merger of predecessor Lutheran bodies) evaporated within months.

In the fall of 1987 (just before the merger), three senior seminarians from California came out, and their path to ordination was not immediately blocked. In fact, all three were certified for ordination by the appropriate committees late in 1987, with the expectation that the ELCA would routinely continue the process. But, it was not to be. One of the three, Jeff Johnson, quipped in February, 1988, that public attention “turned out to be a little bigger deal than I thought it would be.” Meanwhile, the first presiding bishop of the newly-merged ELCA, Herbert Chilstrom, suggested that the pending ordinations “set off an avalanche of letters and phone calls to parish pastors, synodical bishops and our church-wide office here in Chicago.” The fledgling denomination caved under public pressure, and the ordination approvals were withdrawn.

Meanwhile, in Minnesota, a lesbian couple that had met while seminarians at Luther Seminary of St. Paul also had their path toward ordination blocked. Ruth Frost, the daughter of an esteemed professor at Luther, and Phyllis Zillhart, from Southwestern Minnesota, worked in non-ecclesiastical jobs after seminary graduation.

Then, ecclesiastical disobedience came to the ELCA, in the form of extra ordinem (extraordinary) ordinations. A pair of San Francisco congregations, part of a larger grouping of Bay area congregations (predecessor to what later become Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries–ELM), risked denominational punishment by calling and ordaining Jeff Johnson to one congregation and Ruth Frost and Phyllis Zillhart to a shared call at the second. Here is a video that recounts these events of 1990, borrowed from the ELM website.

Following a highly dramatic ecclesiastical trial, the two congregations were initially suspended and later expelled from the ELCA. The ad hoc disciplinary committee that conducted the trials felt compelled to follow church policy, but their official decision called on the ELCA to reconsider the policy. Referring to the two senior pastors of the congregations who dared to call the gay and lesbian ordinands, the disciplinary committee chair wrote:

I could not help but believe that if Christ were with us now, in body as well as spirit, we would find him seated at their table. I regard myself fortunate to be part of a church that counts them as pastors.

Pastors Johnson, Frost, and Zillhart—and their congregations–provided pastoral comfort to the San Francisco gay community at the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, offering their amens to the dying and their families even as the wider church was absent.

The postscript to the story includes the festive Rites of Reception of these three, and others, to the official clergy roster of the ELCA in 2010, as well as the invitation from the ELCA to the two expelled congregations, St Francis Lutheran and First United Lutheran, to rejoin the denomination, which both congregations accepted.

This brief account fails to do justice to this poignant story; Queer Clergy: A History of Gay and Lesbian Ministry in American Protestantism offers a greatly expanded retelling.