A historic day—and insignificant: UPDATED WITH VIDEO
The title of this post comes from St Paul area ELCA Synod Bishop Peter Rogness.
At the Saturday press conference prior to the Rite of Reception held in St Paul, Minnesota for three lesbian pastors (Ruth Frost, Phyllis Zillhart, and Anita Hill), Bishop Rogness alluded to the obvious historic significance of the formal ELCA welcome to the roster of ordained clergy but also reminded those assembled that the three pastors will now do the same things they did last week, last month, last year and for many years before that. Everything has changed and nothing has changed. Pastors Frost and Zillhart will continue with their hospice ministries and Pastor Hill will return to her pastoral call to St Paul Reformation Lutheran Church. For over sixty years combined, these three have been responding to their calls to the ministry, and now they will continue as before.
“Few who have personal knowledge of them as persons or of the ministries they’ve done would question that the love of the God we meet in Jesus Christ has been proclaimed and lived through them,” said the bishop.
“What then has changed?” came the question from the assembled press corps.
Pastor Hill responded, “It is the message of welcome we now hear from our church.”
Pastor Frost added, “And the message goes out from here to the ears of other gays and lesbians who hear the call to ministry, but even more importantly, to the whole host, the entire gay community. Here is a church where you are welcome.”
Pastor Zillhart spoke symbolically, befitting the religious ceremony to follow. “Today we will join hands with all those who blessed our call over the past twenty years and with all those who will come after.”
[With apologies to the speakers, I have paraphrased their comments as I heard them at the press conference]
With the conclusion of the press conference, I joined my wife and friends Phil and Barb from Northfield in the spacious sanctuary of Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, the same venue that had witnessed the extraordinary ordination of Pastor Hill nearly a decade earlier. The assembled crowd stirred and swelled as a Woodwind Quartet played variations on a “Hymn of Gladness”, the Chancel Choir sang “Al Shlosha D’Varim”, and the Chancel Brass announced the beginning of the processional with a “Fanfare and Chorus”. Through my tears, I struggled to sing the words of the processional hymn.
Here in this place the new light is streaming, now is the darkness vanished away; see in this space our fears and our dreamings brought here to you in the light of the day. Gather us in, the lost and forsaken, gather us in, the blind and the lame, call to us now, and we shall awaken, we shall arise at the sound of our name.
The entire procession of bishops, active and retired, and countless clergy filed past through four stanzas of the hymn and more before all had reached their place, and then former Presiding Bishop of the ELCA, Herb Chilstrom, led us in halting voice and failing eyesight in a litany of confession, which concluded with words of encouragement from the prophet Isaiah:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they will not overcome you. You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.
Hymns and prayers and greetings and readings followed and then the gospel acclamation of the Chancel Choir with the congregation joining in the refrain as a procession carried the gospel book to the center of the gathering:
My heart shall sing of the day you bring. Let the fires of your justice burn. Wipe away all tears, for the dawn draws near, and the world is about to turn.
Preaching Minister, Pastor Barbara Lundblad, professor of preaching at Union Theological Seminary, read the gospel according to Matthew, chapter 20, the parable of the laborers in the vineyard. And then she preached from this text, as only she can do, with gentle humor and prophetic insight. She said that this Matthew text was suggested by Pastor Hill in an email, which addressed those who question her ministry.
We are doing you no wrong by being received to the ELCA roster. … So why must our reception be seen as sullying the ministry for everyone? Do you not see the pain of not having … [our work] acknowledged for all these years?
Or, as the gracious master in the parable asks, “are you envious because I am generous?”
Then came the Rite of Reception. Pastors Frost, Zillhart, and Hill knelt before the altar. They and the congregation exchanged promises “to give faithful witness in the world, that God’s love may be known”. The ordained clergy clustered about and laid on hands. Then the three moved to the center aisle and heard the words of their bishop,
Let it be recognized and acclaimed that Ruth, Phyllis, and Anita are called and ordained ministers in the church of Christ. They have Christ’s authority to preach the word of God and administer the sacraments, serving God’s people as together we bear God’s creative and redeeming love to all the world.
The applause from the standing congregation was long and loud.
The website of St Paul Reformation Church broadcast the ceremony live online, and the webcast is still available.
The video of the news report on Twin Cities television, KARE 11, is copied below: