Category Archives: Minnesota

Cast of Characters: Gene Robinson

Gene Robinson portraitIf readers of this blog series of biographical snippets of the iconic pilgrims who led the journey toward full inclusion know only one name, it would undoubtedly be Bishop Gene Robinson, consecrated as the bishop of the New Hampshire Episcopal Diocese in 2003. For this brief taste of the Gene Robinson story, we will sample the spicy few days in Minneapolis when bishop-elect Robinson’s fate was on the plate-then off-then on again.

As with several other significant waypoints along the journey, the 2003 General Convention that approved his election occurred on the banks of the Mississippi River in the Land of Ten Thousand Lakes. It was in Minnesota that the Episcopalians convened in 1976 and revised canon law to allow women to be ordained to all levels of ministry; it was here that Christian feminists gathered for a Re-Imaging Conference in 1993 that rattled the mainline denominations; it was here that the Lutherans convened for their 2009 Church Wide Assembly and revised ministry policies to allow partnered gays and lesbians to be ordained; and it was here that the Presbyterians voted in General Assembly 2010 to do the same. There were numerous lesser signposts staked in Minnesota as well, and this was the homeland of more than a few pilgrims encountered in the book. There must be something in the Minnesota water.

Episcopalians elect their own bishops in diocesan conventions. However, the elections must be ratified by the national church, which is usually nothing more than a rubber-stamp approval. Because the New Hampshire Diocese elected Gene Robinson just a short time before the scheduled triennial General Convention, it would be the bishops and deputies who would gather in Minneapolis in the summer of 2003 who would have the last word. July in Minnesota is splendid, and the freezing blizzards of January are merely a test of character for the thousands of Minnesotans whose reward is to wet a fish line or take a dip in the sky-blue waters of midsummer. Yah, sure, you betcha.

Gene Robinson was a candidate running for office with a well-oiled campaign. His supporters roamed the hallways sporting buttons that said “Ask Me About Gene.” Robinson himself wore one that said, “I AM Gene” as he chatted and greeted all comers with a friendly grin and firm handshake. Partner Mark followed closely, appearing a bit self-conscious, and a burly security man with a crew cut kept a close watch.

A standing-room only audience followed Robinson’s speech before a committee considering the consecration of bishops. Many more clustered around the closed-circuit TV monitors in adjacent rooms. Part of Robinson’s task, now and continuing throughout the convention, would be a rebuttal of lies put out by his adversaries. He had not abandoned his wife and children, and they said so in highly supportive terms (his relationship with Mark Andrews began a couple of years after the divorce). Robinson’s twenty-one year old daughter appeared in person and read aloud a statement prepared by her mother, which demonstrated her continuing high regard for the man who had once been her husband.

Our lives together both married and divorced have been examples of how to deal with difficult decisions with grace, love, integrity, and honour. He is worthy of your affirmation. His charisma will draw in many more people to the church than will leave due to his sexuality. He will be a truly great bishop.

The House of Deputies voted first, and Robinson was easily approved by roughly a two to one majority.

Before the House of Bishops’ vote the following day, which was likely to be dicey anyway, the scent of scandal wafted out of the opponent’s headquarters with an allegation that placed Robinson’s ordination in serious jeopardy. A different allegation that arrived by email had to be dealt with first.

The first allegation developed from an email sent by a TV viewer back in New England who had been watching a news report of the proceedings. A man claimed he had been touched inappropriately by Bishop-elect Robinson at a regional church gathering years earlier. Even the normally reliable Episcopal News Service was swept up in the emotion of the moment, falsely reporting that “a Vermont man sent an e-mail to bishops accusing Robinson of fondling him” (emphasis added). The unfortunate word choice was a sensationalist misstatement–the email made no such claim, and the man quickly backed off when he was contacted by the bishop assigned to investigate. The alleged “touching” of years earlier turned out to be entirely innocuous. In a crowded conference room, Robinson had passed the man and stopped briefly to exchange a greeting. In doing so, Robinson had grasped the man’s upper arm and patted him on the back.

Shocking. Objection overruled.

The second allegation was even more titillating. Robinson was connected to pornographic websites, according to a “portly, red-faced pseudo journalist addicted to conspiracy theories and running his own raucously partisan conservative website.” During his fifteen minutes of fame, the man strutted around the convention media center, gleefully sputtering, “I have found the smoking gun. We got him!” The accuser’s last name was Virtue. You can’t make this stuff up.

Mr. David Virtue was part of the gatekeeping organization, the American Anglican Council (AAC). It had been the AAC chairman who first alerted church authorities to the allegations of Mr. Virtue. ”I think the bishops in considering his worthiness would want to weigh that,” the chairman said as he bounced around the convention press center, hoping that substance would back up the flimsy allegation, even while sanctimoniously claiming otherwise.

Supporters were stunned. Bishop Samuel G. Candler of the Diocese of Atlanta had spoken passionately on behalf of Rev. Robinson, but he admitted that he was shaken by the allegation.

Detractors smugly asserted, “we told you so.” Rev. Donald Armstrong of Colorado Springs, an opponent of Robinson, claimed that the allegation about pornography was entirely predictable because of Robinson’s disordered sexuality, and he suggested that Robinson ought to withdraw his candidacy.

The investigation into the pornographic website complaint revealed no connection to Robinson whatsoever. It was a “six degrees of separation” claim run amok. The questionable link had been placed on an organization’s website long after Robinson was no longer involved with the organization. The guilt-by-association smear tactic of unvirtuous Mr. Virtue failed. The investigator reported to his fellow bishops that there was ”no necessity to pursue” either complaint further. Objection overruled.

Gene Robinson consecrationWhen the Bishops finally conducted their own vote a day late, Robinson’s ordination to the episcopate was approved by nearly sixty per cent. Perhaps a vote or two swung in favor of Bishop-elect Robinson due to the underhanded tactics of the gatekeepers. Robinson was consecrated as New Hampshire bishop later that fall, but that festive event is another story.

The book is now available!

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 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)

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)

Cast of Characters: Anita Hill

Pastor Anita HillWith a childhood background in Louisiana Roman Catholicism and then Mississippi Methodism, Anita Hill’s faith matured in Ann Arbor, Michigan. While attending a Lutheran Campus Ministry Bible study on homosexuality, she became a Lutheran who sensed a call to ministry and advocacy. She became active in the fledgling LGBT group, Lutherans Concerned, and she was elected co-chair in 1980. By 1983, she had been called to serve with Wingspan Ministry, an LGBT outreach of St. Paul Reformation in St. Paul, Minnesota. That same year, St. Paul-Ref became one of the first two Lutheran congregations to join the welcoming church movement as Reconciling in Christ congregations (Ross Merkel’s Oakland congregation was the other).

In the 1990s, she enrolled at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, an ecumenical seminary affiliated with the UCC, even as she continued as Pastoral Minister at St. Paul-Ref. During her time at United, she received awards for her scholarship and her service. During this period she also met her life partner, Janelle Bussert, and they were blessed in a service at St. Paul-Ref in 1996, followed by a dance in the freshly-painted church basement that lasted for hours, “there were a few elders who sat up past their bedtime watching people of the same gender dance.”

Hill graduated from United Seminary in 2000 and pursued ELCA ordination through regular synod channels. The St. Paul Area Synod bishop at the time was Mark Hanson, soon to be elected to be the ELCA presiding bishop. St. Paul-Ref asked the synod, which in turn asked the ELCA Church Council, for an exception to the current guidelines. Their request was rejected. Following a unanimous vote by the St. Paul-Ref congregation (176-0), Hill and the congregation decided to pursue ordination outside the normal procedures, following the example of the two San Francisco congregations in 1990. Those two congregations had been expelled by the ELCA. In fact, Ruth Frost and Phyllis Zillhart had been members of St. Paul-Ref at that time, and it was Anita Hill who suggested they pursue the San Francisco call.

Through the auspices of the predecessor organizations of Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries (ELM), Hill was ordained extra ordinem in 2001. The ordination was moved to the nearby facilities of Lutheran Church of the Redeemer that would be better able to handle the anticipated throng. A thousand or more swelled the old sanctuary on Saturday, April 27th, including more than two hundred clergy–Lutherans, of course, but also Presbyterians, Roman Catholics, Baptists, a rabbi, and a Buddhist monk–and three Lutheran bishops: Swedish bishop and Harvard professor Krister Stendahl, sitting bishop Paul Egertson, and retired bishop Lowell Erdahl. Bishop Egertson was forced to resign because of his involvement in Hill’s ordination. On the other hand, contrasted with the expulsions of the San Francisco congregations following ecclesiastical trials 10 years earlier, St. Paul-Ref received a tepid tap on the wrist.

Pastor Hill became the poster Lutheran lesbian. In the Lutheran legislative wrangling in the biennial assemblies leading up to the momentous policy changes in 2009, Pastor Hill was a highly-visible face of the Lutheran LGBT community. At the 2005 Churchwide Assembly, a resolution to allow Hill to speak to the plenary failed. Hill and a hundred others risked the wrath of their church by marching to the front of the dais and refusing to leave. If the plenary was to talk about them, even as they refused to talk with them, at least they would see the faces of the objects of their discussions.

After the church made a 180 degree policy shift in 2009, Hill was welcomed onto the roster of ELCA clergy in a festive Rite of Reception on September 10, 2010. The Rite also included Ruth Frost and Phyllis Zillhart who had returned to the Twin Cities by then and served as hospice chaplains. The entire procession of bishops, active and retired, and countless clergy filed in through four stanzas of the hymn and more before all had reached their place, and then the first presiding bishop of the ELCA, Herbert Chilstrom, led the congregation in halting voice and failing eyesight in a litany of confession, which included a confession of the sins of the church toward gays and lesbians.

As preaching minister Barbara Lundblad moved to the center of the congregation to read the gospel message, the congregation joined the choir in the refrain of the gospel anthem:

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.

Hill Bussert weddingSince then, Pastor Hill has left pastoral ministry and accepted a position as regional director of ReconcilingWorks. At the 2013 Twin Cities Pride parade, I stood next to her and asked whether she and Janelle would be married now that Minnesota had passed marriage equality. “Yes, but probably very low key,” she said, but it would turn out to be more than that. On November 10, 2013, they were married in a joint wedding with their friends Jodi Barry and Jenny Mason.

 

The book is now available!

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 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)

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

Blessed grief

My eighty-nine year old father will soon pass. His health has deteriorated significantly in the last year as he as moved from ambulatory to bed-ridden, assisted living facility to nursing home, and now to hospice care. In the last week and half, he has been in and out of the hospital, and over the weekend we had serious conversations with him that the end is near unless he would choose to override his living will which rules out extreme measures to prolong life. He understood and didn’t change his mind. Today, he will be returned to his nursing home and will spend the last days in hospice care.

We called his sister and a sister-in-law from his hospital room, and he heard their voices on speaker phone. With exertion, he was able to whisper “Hi”. They were able to express their love and say their goodbyes. When the word spread, others called. Family gathered in his room, including children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Dad smiled at our jokes and with each new arrival. Pastor Trish from our home church in Upsala, Minnesota came, and we shared bread and wine and many tears.

Even though I tend to be an emotional person, easy to come to tears, I am surprised at just how teary I have been. My cheeks are wet as I write this. But it’s good. It’s so very sweet. This is a holy time, and each memory, each phone call, each labored breath is sacred. My yoga-instructor daughter would say we shouldn’t avoid the pain but embrace it as part of the fullness of life. We can learn from Eastern religion. God is in our tears.

Long remembered stories are told again. Pictures are popping up on Facebook. I add my personal favorite. The scene is from a Minnesota winter in which we sat in a steamy sauna and then ran outside and rolled in the snow. The picture shows Dad returning inside, and you can see the snow in his sideburns; the exuberance demonstrates his essential nature.Dad and sauna

More than any person I know, Dad has loved life.

On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.  Isaiah 25:6

Yes, my dad ate the marrow—literally. And stinky cheese, pickled herring, venison steaks barbecued in the fireplace during the winter months, and he drank his homemade wine made from Basswood blossoms picked at Cedar Lake. The way he  relished rich foods serves as metaphor for his life. With a flourish. As he savored a tasty morsel, he had a characteristic flick of the wrist which said, “Yes, life is good!” Amen.

Though I cry, I am not sad but joyful. Along with so many others, I have been blessed to have him in my life. Thanks be to God!