Author Archives: Obie Holmen

Gonna Stick My Sword in the Golden Sand

Sergeant Holmen and Sergeant Heald

Sgt Holmen and Sgt Heald 1970

Forty-five years ago this month, I was in transition. I was leaving a line company of infantry in Vietnam where we slept under the stars in the mud and amongst the critters for the life of a LRRP (Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol) that would offer a barracks and hot meals but also hair-raising scouting missions into hostile territory. Even after this lengthy passage of time, I’m not sure of the wisdom of that decision, but it was what it was.

This spring, during a California book tour, I visited my best friend from those long-ago days, and we discovered that time has stood still for our relationship–we jumped straightaway into discussion of religion, politics, sex, and all the philosophical musings and questioning that we first experienced as young men on late nights in the barracks as the sun was setting on the tumultuous sixties.

G-pa Holmen and G-pa Heald

G-pa Holmen and G-pa Heald 2014

A few years ago, I wrote several short stories based upon my army experience–some of you may have read the compilation entitled Prowl— and my recent visit with Gary inspired me to finish that project. Thus, I have edited and revised those stories, woven them together, and added some new material. All this is to say that I am pleased to announce that Gonna Stick My Sword in the Golden Sand: A Vietnam Soldier’s Story has just been released.

The title comes from a stanza of the gospel traditional, Down by the Riverside, with its refrain–“Ain’t gonna study war no more.” I would like to think that there are echoes of earlier classics of war fiction. Like The Red Badge of Courage, Golden Sand recreates the fear of the soldier facing battle; like All Quiet on the Western Front, Golden Sand confronts the banality of war for the weary soldier.

Golden Sand coverGolden Sand is a bold, dark, and intense retelling of the Vietnam experience through the eyes of an army scout, the point man on a camouflaged and face-painted four-man LRRP team inserted by helicopter into remote and unfriendly territory to search for “Charlie,” the North Vietnamese soldiers who travelled the mountain gullies of the Ho Chi Minh trail. Golden Sand is less about patriotism and heroism than about the gut-wrenching reality for the Vietnam combat soldiers who are celebrated for simply doing their best to get by, not as superheroes, but as young men who often acted heroically but sometimes foolishly in circumstances not of their own choosing. One reviewer of an earlier short story commented, “The bond and the folly of immortal combat ring loud and clear from the page, and the story’s told with all the realism, language and pathos of experience.” The mood of Golden Sand is dark and somber rather than triumphalistic: a hauntingly honest and brutally true retelling rather than a glorification of the Vietnam experience.

Others commented after reading the short stories:

Gripping stories, unquestionably authentic, well written.

You read along on everyday books, then open one of these up and its like being smacked in the head. They just open up and tell it to you like it is. I love it.

The tension in the individual stories leaps off the page but the author manages an injection of black humour.

This story is a page-turner, the reader will not be left bored or yawning.

Characters and place come to life with the words, dialog is pitch perfect, and there are haunting comments I’ll remember long after the story’s done.

Click here if you’d like an autographed copy, or go to for either a print paperback or eBook. For $0.99, you can download an individual chapter on Amazon to check it out. Here’s the list of chapter titles:

Eleven Bravo


Here Comes Charlie

Cat Quiet

Whiskey in the Rain

Chasing After Wind

Elijah Fire

Donut Dollies

Down by the Riverside

Gay Games Symposium

Originally known as the Gay Olympics and dating to 1982, the Gay Games are held every four years (just like the Olympiad), and the 9th quadrennial event will run from August 9th through the 16th in the Cleveland/Akron area. The Gay Games will become international when the 2018 games move to Paris.

The events are participatory rather than competitive, and this year’s event is expected to draw 35,000 visitors, including 10,000 participants. The Games are open to all adults – regardless of sexual orientation or athletic ability. With more than 35 sports (from darts to triathlon, bowling to softball) and 2 cultural events (band and chorus), there’s something for everybody.

The United Church of Christ, with headquarters in Cleveland, is one of the sponsors, the first time a religious denomination has taken such a supportive stance. Rev. J. Bennett Guess, an executive in the UCC home office, wrote a guest column in, and he stated,

[W]hen Cleveland, our hometown, was selected to host this summer’s international Gay Games, leaders within the United Church of Christ knew instantly that we had a responsibility, not only as a good corporate citizen, but also as a prominent national religious organization, to do all we could in support, because the lives of LGBT people and their families are at stake. That’s the Christian message of faith, equality and justice that we want to emanate from our visible and vocal endorsement. That’s why we are especially proud that, this August, Cleveland’s own United Church of Christ, headquartered on Prospect Avenue, will become the first religious denomination to be a major corporate sponsor of the Gay Games. The UCC’s Amistad Chapel, built as a shrine to faith-inspired justice advocacy, will host events and extravagantly welcome visitors from across the country and around the globe.

Amistad ChapelI am pleased and honored that the UCC has asked me to moderate a symposium during the games entitled Queer Christians: Celebrating the Past, Shaping the Future. Five local and national leaders of denominations that have made significant progress in becoming LGBT friendly will comprise the blue-ribbon symposium panel. The panelists include:

Rev. Don King is the pastor of Hope Lutheran Church (ELCA) in Cleveland Heights. Hope Lutheran is a Reconciling in Christ Congregation, and Pr. King has been active in the Lutheran LGBT advocacy organization called ReconcilingWorks.

Andy Lang is the executive director of the UCC Coalition for Gay and Lesbian Concerns. The Coalition administers the UCC Open and Affirming Program.

Rev. Tricia Dykers Koenig is the National Organizer for the Covenant Network of Presbyterians.

The Very Rev. Tracey Lind is the dean of Trinity Cathedral, the home of the Episcopal Diocese of Ohio.

Dr. Kenneth W. Chalker is the pastor of University Circle United Methodist Church, a Reconciling Ministries congregation.

The symposium will be at the Amistad Chapel (700 Prospect Avenue) in downtown Cleveland on Tuesday afternoon, August 12th, commencing at 2:30 pm.



Email sent to my followers

The following is the text of an email sent today to a couple thousand friends and followers.


It’s time to catch my breath. Since the release of Queer Clergy in February, I’ve been on the road … Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, and California. I have been the guest of book clubs, adult forums, LGBT reconciling groups, the Pacific School of Religion, and I’ve been a guest preacher (always a treat for an old lawyer). I’ve made the rounds of Lutheran, Methodist, and UCC church conventions and a book fair.

To be sure, there have been disappointments, starting with the three month delay in the book release that caused the book to miss Christmas sales. I had to cancel a speaking engagement in Chicago because of Minnesota weather. As my plane approached San Francisco, we turned back to LA because of malfunctioning de-icing equipment on the wings! Thanks to my Bay Area host, Pam Byers, who did yeoman’s duty by whisking me from the airport to a scheduled speaking engagement when the replacement plane finally landed.

Through it all, we’ve managed to sell a few books, and Pilgrim Press tells me that the book is in its second printing (probably due to a small first print run). But, the biggest treat is the chance to visit old friends and make new ones. The conversations are always the best.

Thank you for supporting my ministry of writing and speaking. Thanks for purchasing one of my books–or maybe two or three! Please share your feedback–directly by email to me or by posting a review on Amazon.

Remember, I love to talk! Please consider an invitation to speak to your group–book club, adult forum, or even to your whole congregation during worship. Contact me by phone or email, and we’ll arrange something that will work for you.

Methodist Queer Clergy

As Christian gays and lesbians have wandered in the wilderness seeking to cross over into the promised land of full inclusion, what has been the goal, the signpost, the visible sign of the land of milk and honey for the queer pilgrim? I suggest two objectives that would mark journey’s end: marriage equality and queer clergy.

Before there was marriage equality, there were ceremonies of blessing, variously called “covenant services,” “commitment services,” “rites of blessing,” and “holy unions.” The United Church of Christ always traveled ahead of sister denominations on the journey toward full inclusion and did not experience the controversies visited upon the other ecumenical denominations. For the Episcopal Church and the ELCA, ceremonies of blessing were never particularly contentious compared to the raging battles over queer clergy that were the subject of ecclesiastical court cases and tense legislative wrangling at national conventions. Similarly, for the Presbyterians, LGBT ordination issues dominated, and the recent adoption of marriage equality was in many ways merely the logical corollary to the revision in ministry policies enacted several years earlier.

For these reasons, my book, Queer Clergy, focuses upon on the struggle for ordination:

For our purposes, full inclusion implies an attitude of welcome without precondition (all means all) and without limit (not just pew but pulpit). The LGBT community is not fully included, not fully welcomed, not fully respected, not fully accepted, not fully treated as children of God unless they can participate in all roles, including the offices of ordained ministry. Many of the pilgrims we will encounter seek to answer their call to ordination, but their quest is not merely self-actualization for they are standard bearers for an entire community. LGBT ordination has been the linchpin, the symbol, the visible sign of inclusivity that sounds” the message [that] 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 LGBT community. Here is a church where you are welcome.”

Which brings us to the Methodists. Again, queer clergy issues came first. When gay pastor Gene Leggett protested his defrocking in 1972, the Methodist General Conference responded with the infamous incompatibility clause: “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” A dozen years later after Bishop Melvin Wheatley ordained an out lesbian, the 1984 General Conference responded with “self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be accepted as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church.” The first Methodist ecclesiastical court case over LGBT issues was the 1988 defrocking trial of lesbian Rose Mary Denman.

It was not until 1996 when General Conference added a provision to the Social Principles that brought ceremonies of blessing to the fore. The 1996 General Conference enacted this provision: “Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches.” Suddenly, the Methodist progressives were in retreat, and the gatekeepers advanced. Hopes for LGBT ordination had moved beyond the horizon as the ecclesiastical courts enforced the prohibition of covenant ceremonies. Pastor Jimmy Creech, a straight man, was defrocked in the late nineties for performing covenant ceremonies. Similarly, Pastor Greg Dell of Chicago, another straight man, was suspended for a year for blessing the relationship of a pair of his gay parishioners. For the Methodists, LGBT ordination was shoved to the rear burner.

In recent years, Methodist progressives are winning skirmishes over marriage equality. Well over a thousand clergy and bishops have promised to perform marriages when asked and countless are doing so–too many for the gatekeepers to attempt to prosecute. Even picking and choosing their battles has resulted in losses for the conservatives as penalties are minimal or non-existent. As I write this blogpost, news has flashed that Rev. Frank Schaefer has won his appeal, and his clergy credentials have been reinstated. Bishops and conferences are on public record that they will not bring ecclesiastical charges over gay and lesbian marriages.

If momentum over Methodist marriage equality has turned, could ordination issues again resurface?

Funny you should ask.

  • A lesbian ministry candidate recently sought ordination in Texas. Though Mary Ann Barclay’s candidacy was rejected by the Board of Ministry, it is not clear whether her sexual orientation was an issue. It was not discussed during her interview, and the Board’s public statement on May 14, 2014, stated, “The Board thanks Mary Ann for her time and we affirm her as a person of sacred worth, created by God. We have learned from her and we extend our respect for her work in ministry at her local church.” The reasons for rejection were based on the lack of qualifications quite apart from her sexual orientation–at least, that was the official rationale. Earlier Judicial Council actions had allowed the process to continue despite her sexual orientation.
  • At the session of the California-Nevada Annual Conference that convened last week, a resolution was passed indicating that the conference would not discriminate against LGBT candidates for ministry. More specifically, the adopted resolution indicated that “The California-Nevada Annual Conference believes that the mandates of inclusion … take precedence over the discriminatory mandates of exclusion.”
  • In Wisconsin, Rev. Amy DeLong, whose celebrated ecclesiastical trial in 2011 signaled shifting attitudes, has quietly been re-appointed to pastoral ministry. Although she acknowledges herself to be an “out, partnered lesbian” (as noted in her blurb on the back cover of my book), Bishop Hee-Soo Jung considered her eligible for appointment, and she was appointed to be pastor of River Falls UMC of River Falls, Wisconsin. At the just-concluded session of the Wisconsin Annual Conference, there was no public objection to her appointment although the bishop has received a private letter of objection.

The situation in the Methodist church is fluid. As gatekeepers retreat, they raise the specter of schism. Some church leaders are proposing a middle ground, a de jure local option in which individual annual conferences could choose to be fully LGBT inclusive. That may, indeed, be the direction of the church, but the local option already exists, de facto, as evidenced by the actions noted above. There is concern by some progressives that writing a local option into the Book of Discipline would create a segregated system in which some jurisdictions would remain discriminatory. Adoption of a local option policy may not be a stepping stone to full inclusion but an end-all that entrenches Jim Crow-like segregation for LGBT persons in pockets of the church. On the other hand, a local option policy would perhaps minimize a potential schism; if a schism were to occur, departing schismatics would undoubtedly retain their discriminatory ways. One way or the other, LGBT discrimination will likely remain in some corners of Methodism.

The Naming Project: Ten years of summer camps for queer kids and allies


Brad, Jay, and Ross at camp in their younger years

More than ten years ago, three gay Lutheran men with seminary backgrounds saw a need for “a space for youth to find community and know that they were safe and accepted for who they were.” Based upon their collaborative efforts, The Naming Project came into being and now celebrates its tenth anniversary. I blogged about The Naming Project four years ago, and more information is available on their website.

Rev. Brad Froslee is now the pastor of Calvary Lutheran Church in South Minneapolis, Jay Wiesner-Smith has returned to the secular world as a human resources person for Comcast in Philadelphia, and Ross Murray is now the Director of News for GLAAD and lives and works in NYC.

Today The Naming Project continues to provide safe, welcoming, and nurturing environments for g/l/b/t and allied youth. The dreams and work of Jay Wiesner, Ross Murray, and Brad Froslee alongside the work of a tremendous Advisory Board, congregations, and community leaders continues to unfold. There is a dream that every youth (whether g/l/b/t or allied) should know a place of acceptance and the abundant love of God. And throughout our lives we are reminded that it is an ongoing project to remember that we have been created and named as “a beloved child of God.”

On this tenth anniversary, the Naming Project is undertaking a major fundraising effort. Please help as you can, share with your friends, and point any potential camp attendees in their direction.

Following the Presbyterian General Assembly from afar

I’m a church nerd–more precisely, a church convention groupie. When my wife and I were sent as voting members to the inaugural assembly of our NE Minnesota ELCA Synod (1988), we were hooked. We returned year after year as voting members or as guests for the fellowship, the bookstore, stirring worship, and ecclesiastical politics. More recently, I have been at numerous regional Methodist, Episcopal, Lutheran, and UCC conventions in the Midwest hawking my books. While researching and writing Queer Clergy: A History of Gay and Lesbian Ministry, I attended the Methodist General Conference of 2012, the Presbyterian General Assembly of 2012, the Episcopal General Convention of 2012, and the last three ELCA church wide assemblies.

All this is to say I feel downright left out as the Presbyterian General Assembly is currently underway in Detroit, especially because it appears that history is happening.

For Lutherans, Episcopalians, and the UCC, blessing the relationships of same-gender couples has never been a contested issue, compared to the decades-long struggle over LGBT ordination. Given the progressive DNA of the UCC, the lack of significant controversy is hardly surprising. For the Lutherans and Episcopalians, blessing gay or lesbian partners was largely left to the discretion of the pastor/priest who was free to “explore the best ways to provide pastoral care.” Such discretion has naturally rolled over into performing marriages as state after state have changed their civil definitions of marriage.

For the Methodists, performing covenant ceremonies or–God forbid, marriages–has been the LGBT issue. Beginning with the defrocking trial of Rev. Jimmy Creech before the turn of the century to the recent defrocking of Rev. Frank Schaefer, along with thousands of clergy and bishops who are willing to conduct LGBT marriages in defiance of the Methodist Book of Discipline, the Methodist journey to full inclusion still has miles to go.

Which brings us to the unique circumstances of the Presbyterians.

Ordination of LGBT ministry candidates has also been the principal source of Presbyterian controversy over the years–from judicial decisions interpreting a 1978 “definitive guidance” that prohibited LGBT ordinations, through the adoption of “fidelity and chastity” versus “fidelity and integrity” in the 1990s, through disagreement over “that which the confessions call sin” and the mysterious and erroneous reference to homosexuality in modern interpretations of the centuries-old Heidelberg Confession, through thrice-adopted reforms by general assemblies only to see the presbyteries fail to ratify, to the 2010-2011 breakthrough that allowed LGBT ordination. While the decades-long debate over LGBT ordination occupied the attention of the church, the issue of rites of blessing remained secondary. Now that ordinations of gays and lesbians are occurring regularly, attention has switched to marriage equality.

In ecclesiastical court decisions early in this century, the Presbyterian “Supreme Court” drew a bright line between clergy conducting covenant services (permitted) and officiating at legal marriages (not permitted). In fact, the earliest cases were dismissed because the purported marriage of a gay or lesbian couple was not legal in the jurisdiction in which it was performed, but that judicial dodge was no longer available as marriage equality spread from one jurisdiction to the next. Yet, when the Presbyterian Supreme Court ruled that Rev. Dr. Jane Spahr had repeatedly violated church policy by performing marriage ceremonies and remanded her case to her local presbytery to impose censure, the presbytery instead voted to support her ministry.

Presbyterian assemblyWhich brings us to General Assembly, the national gathering of the church that meets once every two years and which has ultimate policy-making, legislative authority–but often subject to ratification by the 173 regional presbyteries. Although there are numerous proposals to be considered, the principal issues are narrowed to two: an authoritative interpretation (AI) that would allow clergy, as a matter of conscience, to officiate at same-gender weddings, and an amendment to the Book of Order that would change the definition of marriage from “a man and a woman” to “a couple.” The first step of the process is committee hearing and recommendation. Earlier, both matters passed out of committee with strong affirmative votes (51-18 for the AI and 49-18 for the amendment). If both measures pass at plenary, the AI will become immediately effective without further action, but the amendment must go to the individual presbyteries for ratification, which will require majority action.

It’s exciting to watch history unfold, even from afar. Godspeed, Presbyterians.

Did the Movement for Marriage Equality Begin in 2008? One Chapter in a Larger Narrative

Forcing the Spring, the recent best-seller by New York Times reporter Jo Becker, purports to chronicle the back story to the sweeping success of the marriage equality movement across the nation, but critics complain that the book gives too much credit to Becker’s sources and too little to the significant contributions of others, especially earlier pilgrims in the long journey toward marriage equality. In response, author Becker acknowledges that “The book is about one chapter in a larger narrative, and that narrative includes so many people who worked so hard on this issue when the going was far tougher than it is today.”


Let us consider the role of progressive religion. Against well-entrenched religious opposition to all things gay, progressive religious leaders were early voices “crying in the wilderness,” and decades of advocacy within religious spheres have largely prepared the good soil for recent marriage equality policy breakthroughs.

In the sixties, the issue was not marriage equality but criminalization and police harassment of homosexuals. Of course, the Stonewall riots in Greenwich Village in the summer of 1969 exploded as a spontaneous backlash to a police raid on a gay bar, and Stonewall has become the iconic moment that marks the birth of the gay liberation movement.

Clergy press conference following police raid

Clergy press conference following police raid of 1964 New Year’s ball

However, nearly five years before Stonewall, the San Francisco based Council on Religion and Homosexuality (CRH) sponsored a New Year’s Eve ball in 1964 that was raided by police, and the clergy who appeared at a press conference the next day to denounce the police behavior focused the eyes of the nation on abusive police practices and policies. One commentator suggested the clergy provided the “cloak of the cloth,” a powerful and visible sign of religious support for the LGBT community. In 1965, the prestigious Christian Century Magazine suggested, “the law … should not penalize private immoralities which cannot be proved contrary to the common good.” The first LGBT policy statements of the ecumenical Protestant denominations (Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, United Church of Christ) in the late sixties and seventies called for the decriminalization of homosexuality and homosexual behavior.

Holy Union 1970

The 1970 Holy Union of Father Robert Mary Clement and John Darcy Noble, Rev. Troy Perry officiating

By the 1990’s, still long before marriage equality was on the legal horizon, many clergy conferred a blessing on the relationships of their gay or lesbian parishioners, variously referred to as “covenant ceremonies,” “rites of blessing,” commitment services,” “holy unions,” and other terms. In fact, the terminology “holy union” dates to 1970 when independent (non-Roman) Catholic priest, Father Robert Mary Clement, who had marched in his clerical robes in the first Gay Pride parade in New York City, was joined with his life partner in a religious ceremony, and the officiant was Rev. Troy Perry, who had started the Metropolitan Community Churches (MCC), a predominantly gay denomination, months before Stonewall. In 1993, Perry and the MCC organized a Washington D.C. event they dubbed simply “The Wedding,” and Perry claimed “At least 2,600 same-sex couples, complete with tuxedos and wedding gowns, made a public commitment in a mass ritual.”

Meanwhile, the ecumenical Protestant churches wrestled with policies regarding blessing gay and lesbian couples.

  • In 1993, the Lutheran Conference of Bishops stated that although the church did not recognize an official ceremony of blessing, the bishops acknowledged the prerogative of pastors and congregations in ministry with gay and lesbian persons to “explore the best ways to provide pastoral care,” and that was widely interpreted to allow clergy discretion to preside at rites of blessing.
  • After Methodist Pastor Jimmy Creech was defrocked and Pastor Greg Dell suspended just before the turn of the century for presiding at covenant ceremonies, nearly one hundred West coast Methodist clergy jointly officiated in the covenant service of a lesbian couple. Though Methodist policy remained unchanged, the horde of media representatives and bank of television cameras at the February 2000 press conference announcing that no ecclesiastical charges would be filed against the “Sacramento 68” demonstrated that the same-sex marriage issue had captured the attention of the world.
  • When Massachusetts became the first state to recognize marriage equality in 2003, by judicial fiat, the local Episcopal bishop initially encouraged his priests to refrain from conducting marriage ceremonies, but the priests widely ignored their bishop, and within a few years, the bishop himself presided at a lesbian wedding–of two of his priests, no less!
  • On July 4, 2005, the UCC General Synod formally endorsed marriage equality with an overwhelming vote for a resolution that “affirms equal marriage rights for couples regardless of gender and declares that the government should not interfere with couples regardless of gender who choose to marry and share fully in the rights, responsibilities and commitment of legally recognized marriage.”
  • In the last decade, the Presbyterian journey to full LGBT inclusion was marked by ecclesiastical trials wrestling with rites of blessing, and the Presbyterian courts made it clear that rites of blessing were permitted as long as it was not a legal marriage ceremony. Yet, when the Presbyterian “Supreme Court” instructed her local presbytery to censure Rev. Dr. Jane Spahr, who has long been the “poster lesbian” of the Presbyterian Church, for officiating at legal marriages of gay and lesbian couples, the presbytery instead issued a resolution of support for Rev. Dr. Spahr’s ministry. All Presbyterian eyes are on Detroit this week where issues of marriage equality are front and center of the General Assembly.

In the last dozen years, as marriage equality has gained momentum in the civil sphere, so too has full inclusion of LGBT persons moved forward in the religious sphere, at least within the ecumenical denominations. By removing the gates to the pulpit through revisions to ministry policies–that is, by ordaining partnered gays and lesbians–the UCC (as early as the 1970s), the Episcopalians, the Lutherans, and the Presbyterians have all recently affirmed that the relationships of gay and lesbian partners are to be recognized, supported, and celebrated. Without attempting too fine a point regarding a chicken or egg analysis, when the moral authority of the church swings toward inclusion, public opinion will be affected.

Finally, and especially germane to the recent sweeping success of marriage equality adjudication and legislation across jurisdictions, the role of progressive clergy in statewide pro-equality movements cannot be understated. The example of Minnesota is illustrative. In 2012, a restrictive constitutional amendment was defeated by the electorate, and marriage equality was enacted during the next legislative session in 2013. Minnesotans United was the LGBT advocacy group that successfully worked on both measures, and their strategy “refused to cede the religious ground.” Though the local Roman Catholic Archbishop was an outspoken opponent of marriage equality, ecumenical Protestant and Jewish clergy served in highly visible leadership roles. Minnesota clergy issued joint communiques, provided legislative testimony, appeared at rallies and press conferences, and a priest, a minister, and a rabbi came into a bar together in a humorous TV ad. The clergy collar was omnipresent in LGBT advocacy efforts.

Marriage is a legal contract, defined and sanctioned by the civil law but with significant religious overtones, and the voices of opposition to LGBT rights have long used religion to bolster their arguments. Because of the religious underpinnings to LGBT issues, legal and societal progress would have been slowed or thwarted without the counter-influence of activists and allies, within the church, who offered the “cloak of the cloth” from the earliest days, who provided the example of holy unions to bless and solemnize gay and lesbian relationships, and who “refused to cede the religious ground.”

James: the dangerous brother of Jesus

James and Jesus iconMany scholars suggest that the brother of Jesus known as James the Just is the most forgotten man in Christian history. “I didn’t know Jesus had a brother,” is often the first response when his name is mentioned. The evidence is compelling; according to numerous references in the canonical gospels of the New Testament, the book of Acts of the Apostles, Paul’s authentic letters, contemporary historian Josephus, the non-canonical gospel of Thomas, and early histories of the church, Jesus not only had a brother, but a very important brother, the primary leader of the Jesus movement in the decades following the crucifixion.

What? The leader of the early church? Why don’t the folks in the pews know about this? How could such an influential person in the early history of Christianity be forgotten? Ironic. Or is it? Could it be that the church has largely ignored James precisely because of his relationship to Jesus? Could it be that he was not forgotten but intentionally erased from the story?

It is axiomatic that the victors write the history, and James was the leader of the losing side in the first great conflict in church history. After the crucifixion, the original followers of the slain messiah regrouped in Jerusalem, including Peter and the other disciples, and it was here that James soon ascended to leadership. This core group of proto-Christians (it is anachronistic to apply “Christian” to this early movement) was Jewish.

Enter an outsider. A Greek-educated Diaspora Jew who insisted that he had been called to be an apostle to the Gentiles, who argued that traditional rules of Israelite religion didn’t apply to his Gentile converts, who became an independent missionary in defiance of James’ authority, and who established his own power base in regions far beyond the influence of Jerusalem. Paul of Tarsus was the thorn in the side of James.

Although James and the Jerusalem establishment may have won the early skirmishes, the emerging Christian church would soon be Pauline and Gentile, due in no small part to the vagaries of history and the Jewish civil war. With Jerusalem destroyed, just a few years after the deaths of Paul and James, Jewish Christians could not contend with the Paulines who were better suited for survival in the Greco-Roman world. Although vestiges of this internecine conflict persisted and may be traced through the compilation of the gospels and into the second century, the developing Christian orthodoxy was decidedly Pauline and the legacy of James diminished.

To 21st century sensibilities, the ancient controversies over circumcision, dietary rules, and Sabbath and festival observances seem unimportant.  Why should old conflicts be dredged up? Why is the current scholarly rediscovery of James important or even relevant?

In a word, Christology. Nothing has so divided Christians from the earliest days to the present–scholars, clergy and laity–than the conflicting answers to Jesus’ nagging question, “Who do you say that I am?” For some, it is a test, and the correct dogmatic response assures one’s salvation; for others, however, the question is a call to wonder.

In the early centuries, there were two great centers of Christian scholarship located in Alexandria of Egypt (the 2nd largest city of the Roman empire after Rome itself) and Antioch of Syria (the third largest city). Christian scholars from Antioch argued for the humanity of Jesus while competing scholars across the Mediterranean in Alexandria stressed his divinity. A scholar named Arius, who may have studied in each city, proposed a middle ground–that Jesus was somewhere between divine and human. Emperor Constantine convened the Council at Nicaea to settle the dispute, and a political compromise ensued. Was Jesus human? Yes. Was Jesus divine? Yes. Instead of either/or, the assembled bishops declared both/and. Truly human and truly divine was the political compromise, hammered out first at Nicaea and then at Chalcedon, that may have settled the debate de jure but not de facto.

Was the issue resolved? If so, why do modern-day evangelicals accuse the rest of Christendom of being soft on the divinity of Jesus? Why do liberal scholars, including many in the Jesus seminar, stress the humanity of the man from Nazareth?

Enter James. James is relevant to the ongoing Christological controversies.  James scholar Robert Eisenman ends his tome (James the Brother of Jesus) with this challenging statement, “Who and whatever James was, so was Jesus.” Many would disagree, but Eisenman’s statement frames the debate and defines the importance of James scholarship. This also brings us back to the original premise that James is not merely forgotten but has been intentionally written out of church history.

Ireneaus, the second-century heresy hunter, saw the problem, and he declared the views of the Jewish-Christian Ebionites (heirs of the James legacy?) to be heretical with a deficient Christology: “their opinions … represented Jesus as having not been born of a virgin, but as being the son of Joseph and Mary according to the ordinary course of human generation.”

St. Jerome saw the problem. Around 400 CE, Jerome suggested that James and the other siblings of Jesus mentioned in Scripture were really cousins. At the heart of Jerome’s rejection of a human brother for Jesus is the high Christology of the church. There was no room on the divine family tree for mere human branches.

For many, the divinity of Jesus is the hallmark of Christianity, the sine qua non, and thus James is dangerous. Do we dare to ask the lesser-known man from Nazareth–James, the brother–“Who do you say that Jesus is?”



The Failed Attempt to Blunt Progressive Christianity

In 1980, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and a couple of hundred thousand conservative Christians claimed “Washington for Jesus.” Months later, Ronald Reagan was elected with substantial support from Falwell’s “Moral Majority.” Thus began an unholy alliance between Christian fundamentalists and the Republican Party that now threatens to rip the Grand Old Party apart. The loss of functioning government has been collateral damage of this internecine warfare, and David Brat’s defeat of Eric Cantor is the latest and most profound example of the raging civil war over the heart and soul of Republicanism. That christianist Brat claims his victory was a God-ordained miracle is hardly surprising.

The Republican establishment has long fed the beast that now threatens to devour the party, and Nobel laureate Paul Krugman’s New York Times op-ed of June 13 offers his typical sublime insights. Krugman suggests the Republican establishment has long used the cultural warriors of the religious right to stir up the base and win elections but for the benefit of the economically advantaged. Krugman writes of the stratagem: “an interlocking set of institutions and alliances that won elections by stoking cultural and racial anxiety but used these victories mainly to push an elitist economic agenda.”

There is a striking parallel within ecumenical Protestantism.

At the same time that Ronald Reagan forged support from Christian conservatives into a winning political coalition, the Institute for Religion and Democracy (IRD) was founded in 1981. This organization mirrors the Republican establishment in the manner it riled up folks in the pews in order to further a largely neo-conservative economic and political agenda. The IRD’s political/economic goals include increased defense spending, opposing environmental protection efforts, anti-unionism, and weakening or eliminating social welfare programs, but those actual goals were masked by an emphasis on cultural warfare issues. Over the years, the IRD has been financially supported by a who’s who of right-wing millionaires, including Richard Mellon Scaife, Howard Fieldstead Ahmanson, Jr. and his IRD board member wife Roberta (called the “financiers” in a 2005 Time Magazine article), Adolph Coors, the John M. Olin Foundation, and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.

President of the United Church of Christ, John Thomas, wrote in 2006,

The right-wing Institute for Religion and Democracy and its long-term agenda of silencing a progressive religious voice while enlisting the church in an unholy alliance with right-wing politics is no longer deniable … But to play with Scripture just a bit, we doves innocently entertain these serpents in our midst at our own peril.*

The Lutheran expatriate turned Roman Catholic priest, Richard John Neuhaus, an IRD founder and longtime board member, bragged in 2005 while addressing the IRD board,

How, if at all and what ways, do we distinguish IRD from the remarkable insurgency that has rewritten the map of American culture and politics over the last 20 years, of evangelical, Catholic, generally conservative, religiously inspired political activism, dismissively called by our opponents, the “Religious Right”? How did it happen, one might ask, that IRD became in many ways an ancillary, supportive, coordinating agency for insurgencies within these three denominations–the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church-USA, and the Episcopal Church?*

The earliest splash made by the IRD was to attack the National Council of Churches by promoting the false notion that the ecumenical denominations supported Marxist revolutionaries in Africa. CBS’ 60 Minutes played the role of dupe in furthering the claim in a 1983 segment later dismissed by Don Hewitt, the 60 Minutes creator and longtime producer, as the segment he regretted most in his 36 year career. The broadcast began with the IRD leader, Richard John Neuhaus, speaking,

“I am worried – I am outraged when the church lies to its own people.” The camera moved from an offering plate in a United Methodist church in the Midwest to images of the Cuban dictator Fidel Castro and then to marchers in Communist Red Square. The lengthy segment over and over suggested that the National Council of Churches (NCC) was using Sunday offerings to promote Marxist revolution. The most damaging accusation in the program was that NCC had somehow funded armed insurgents in Zimbabwe. While showing horrific footage of a slain missionary, the program implied that the NCC was responsible for the brutal murder. It was a lie that the top rated show in television told to tens of millions. The broadcast was highly damaging to mainline Protestants and the NCC.*

By the late 1980s and continuing, the IRD founded, funded, or otherwise influenced conservative organizations within the Methodist and Episcopal Churches and trumpeted the danger of LGBT inclusive policies to rally their troops. Dianne Knippers cut her teeth as a staffer for the conservative Methodist organization, “Good News.” Later, she would serve as IRD president during the height of its influence. Methodist theologian Thomas Oden was another Good News leader with ties to IRD as a member of the IRD board of directors. Current IRD President Mark Tooley is a lifelong Methodist and founder of the Methodist arm of the IRD called UMAction. The IRD also has a Presbyterian Action branch. The longtime conservative irritant within the Presbyterian Church is an organization called the Lay Committee that promotes their publication, The Layman. The self-described pillars of the Lay Committee were “People of means and action. Besides being leaders in their churches, they were leaders in corporate America.”* Within the Episcopal Church, Knippers served jointly as IRD President and organizer and leader of the late 1990s Episcopal group, the American Anglican Council, which served as chief conservative organizer at the virulently anti-gay Lambeth Conference in 1998 and as the opposition to the confirmation of Bishop Gene Robinson and all things gay in the early years of this century. Though the opponents of ELCA progressivism are not connected to the IRD, some Lutheran conservative commentators share neo-conservative political views (for example, Robert Benne, the author of The Ethic of Democratic Capitalism: A Moral Reassessment).

Over the years, the Republican establishment has stoked nativist, racist, sexist, anti-intellectual, anti-government, and anti-Muslim fears with a politics of scapegoating the immigrant, the black, the feminist, the queer, the academic, the government worker, and the welfare recipient. town-hall_thumb.jpgBy appealing to lesser instincts–especially of the angry white male–the party has enjoyed sufficient electoral success to continue feeding the beast, but Krugman’s article suggests this “bait and switch” tactic may no longer work as evidenced by Tea Party primary challenges to the party favorites. Ironically, the destabilization of the Republican Party itself would appear to be the legacy of the Jerry Falwells and Pat Robertsons and the complicity of the Reagans, Bushes, and the Republican establishment who are now being forced to “dance with the one who brought you.” While Republican self-destruction may not play out in the 2014 off-year elections, early portents for 2016 suggest a likely Democratic president and Congress, despite the built-in Republican advantage of gerrymandered Congressional districts. In the meantime, dysfunctional government will continue as the Tea Party insurgency in Congress will preclude any meaningful legislation.

While the outcome of the Republican civil war remains uncertain, the ecumenical denominations have largely resisted the contemporaneous neo-con attempts to destabilize leadership and thwart progressive impulses. For years, the conservatives used the rising tide of LGBT inclusive policies to frighten folks in the pews, but that battle is nearly won. Within the Lutheran Church (ELCA), Episcopal Church, and the United Church of Christ, LGBT-friendly policies are largely settled and entrenched with LGBT clergy, bishops, and high-ranking executives in the home offices all serving openly. The Presbyterians now ordain openly gay and lesbian ministry candidates and will likely endorse marriage equality in the next week. Meanwhile, the conservative opposition to Presbyterian progressivism, the Lay Committee, has chosen to stay away from the national General Assembly currently underway in Detroit–a telling admission of their declining influence. Although the battle rages within the United Methodist Church, it is only unique Methodist international polity that serves as the final barricade against LGBT inclusion (38% of all delegates at the last Methodist General Conference were foreign and staunchly conservative regarding LGBT issues), but the swelling pockets of inclusivism in local congregations and regional conferences and the ecclesiastical disobedience of Methodist clergy and bishops signal growing momentum for the cause of inclusion. After years of IRD and other conservative opposition to the innate progressivism of the ecumenical denominations, those church bodies have emerged from the fray more solidly progressive than ever. The neo-conservative intention of thwarting the social justice impulses of progressive Christianity has been a singular failure.

The media is noticing. The religious editor of the Huffington Post suggests the knee-jerk media response of running to the nearest evangelical with a bullhorn may be over in an article entitled, The Stunning Resurgence of Progressive Christianity.

*Quoted in Queer Clergy: A History of Gay and Lesbian Ministry in American Protestantism.

Cast of characters: Guy Erwin

At the 2009 ELCA Church Wide Assembly, two notable measures passed. The first was a social statement on human sexuality, and the second was a revision in ministry policies that recognized and supported gay and lesbian relationships and welcomed such partners into the pulpit. The vote on the social statement came first, following a tornado in the vicinity of the Minneapolis Convention Center.

By late afternoon, the sun peeked out, and the voting members picked up their electronic voting devices, ready to vote. Professor Guy Erwin of California Lutheran University was a laity voting member from the Southwest California Synod. He was returning from a bathroom break when he heard the call to vote. He hustled back into the plenary hall and settled into his seat just as the presiding bishop said, “push one for yes, two for no.”

Out of 1,045 registered, 1,014 were present. To reach the constitutionally mandated 2/3 of voters present and voting, the social statement would need 676 affirmative votes. The vote totals appeared first on the monitor of the presiding bishop. With a quizzical look on his face, he turned to his parliamentarian for guidance, and then he announced, “the Social Statement is adopted,” as the totals flashed on the big screens. There were precisely 676 votes for the measure. Not a single vote to spare. Every single aye voter could legitimately claim to have cast the deciding vote; for Dr. Erwin and his sprint from the men’s room, that seemed especially true. Guy Erwin

Guy Erwin was born in Oklahoma with roots in the Osage tribe of Native Americans. His life in the church would be that of a scholar and academic. While studying at Harvard, the history of Luther and the Reformation led him to the Lutheran Campus Ministry and the Lutheran Church. Later, while undertaking graduate studies at Yale, he considered ordination within the Lutheran Church of America shortly before its merger into the ELCA, but more studies intervened–at Tubingen and Leipzig in Germany. Upon his return from Europe, the ELCA had been formed, and the newly created Vision and Expectations stood as a barrier to his call to ordained ministry. In 1994, he met his life partner, Rob Flynn, and Dr. Erwin assumed that was the end of his prospects for ordination. Dr. Erwin continued his career as an academic, settling in at California Lutheran University (CLU) by 2000 where he has served as a faculty leader.

But, following the revision to ministry policies that the church wide assembly enacted later in the week, Dr. Erwin’s path to ordination opened up. On May 11, 2011, he was ordained by Bishop Dean W. Nelson of the Southwest California Synod, who said,

We are humbled and thankful to God for the privilege of receiving Dr. R. Guy Erwin onto the roster of ordained pastors of the Southwest California Synod. We have been blessed by Guy’s ministry for over a decade, for in addition to teaching at California Lutheran University, Guy has been the Bible study leader and/or presenter at our Bishop’s Colloquy for rostered leaders, at our Synod Assembly, and at our Synod’s Equipping Leaders for Mission School. During that same period, he has also been a preacher and teacher at several of our Synod’s congregations.

Two years later, on May 31, 2013, Rev. Dr. Erwin allowed his name to go forward during the Synod election of a new bishop to succeed Bishop Nelson. He made it past the first couple rounds in the ecclesiastical ballot process, and he was one of the seven remaining candidates called upon to address the plenary and then one of three to participate in a question and answer session. Emily Eastwood, the executive director of ReconcilingWorks, offered this eyewitness account:

A little nervous before he gave his opening speech, once at the microphone and speaking, he relaxed and told a bit of his story. He talked about Rob. The assembly listened silently in rapt attention, no chatting, no coughing or shuffling of papers. He did what he needed to do. He was completely authentic. From that point forward he was in his element, the teacher and pastor. He seemed to have fun with every question in the Q&A session, especially the one asking about how he would handle ministry to LGBT people. You should have seen his face. What a softball question. He responded with care for those who might be at different points in the conversation on LGBT inclusion. His answer was full of grace and the love of Christ. At that moment, he was the bishop, and most everyone knew it.

As the final vote tally was announced, Erwin sat with head bowed with partner Rob leaning in close. The weight of the moment was upon each of them. The call was clear and so was his commitment.

The crowd went wild. There was hardly a dry eye in the house. The assembly had elected the best candidate, he happened to be gay and Native American and a PhD., one of the world’s best known Luther scholars, and a very good pastor.

Emily Eastwood is a battle-scarred warrior. She has been active in LC/NA for over thirty years, the last decade as its leader. As the assembly applauded, she sobbed.

I cried. I cried as I had not in a long time, surprised by how much pent up hope there was in me for this historic moment. I know how to lose, but even now winning takes me by surprise.

Where to buy the book

Print copies are available from Amazonthe 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. For iPad or other Apple users, you may order through the iTunes bookstore. Search on RW Holmen.

This is the last 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)

2000 Jimmy Creech, Greg Dell, Joseph Sprague, and Jack Tuell (Methodist trials to punish clergy who performed covenant services for same-gender couples)

2001 Anita Hill (extraordinarily ordained Lutheran)

2003 Gene Robinson (gay bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire)

2004 Karen Dammann and Beth Stroud (Methodist clergy put on trial for being lesbians)

2007 Bradley Schmeling and Darin Easler (defrocked Lutheran clergy who were the first to be reinstated)

2011 Scott Anderson (first gay Presbyterian to be ordained following policy change)

2011 Amy DeLong (out, partnered Methodist minister on trial)