Seven California Pastors The blogosphere and traditional media are abuzz today with news of the ELCA Rite of Reconciliation service conducted yesterday in California.  An associated press article has appeared in traditional media across the country, and the New York Times offered its own report. 

For those new to this blog or unfamiliar with this story, here is a brief background summary.

Beginning in the early ‘90s, slowly at first but accelerating in recent years, a handful of the over 10,000 congregations of the ELCA defied church wide rostering policies that disallowed gay clergy who did not pledge celibacy.  An independent organization called Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries (ELM) came into existence to provide rostering and ordination assistance to such congregations and their extraordinarily ordained clergy.  At first, the ELCA punished these congregations by expulsion.  More recently the penalties have been less severe, but the extraordinarily ordained clergy were not recognized or placed on the active ELCA roster.

ELM joined with Lutherans Concerned North America (LCNA) and Wingspan ministries to form Goodsoil, an umbrella LGBT advocacy group that has been highly visible at the biennial ELCA Church Wide Assemblies in recent years.  Their efforts came to fruition at the 2009 church wide assembly when the voting members from around the country passed a gay friendly human sexuality statement (a teaching document within the ELCA) and also revised ministry policies to allow ordination and rostering of persons in publicly accountable, lifelong, and monogamous same gender relationships.  Heeding this mandate of the voting members (the ultimate legislative authority of the ELCA), the ELCA church council implemented policies this spring that provided for a “Rite of Reconciliation” that would be the process for previously extraordinarily ordained clergy to be fully welcomed to the roster of ELCA clergy.

The Rite of Reconciliation conducted in California yesterday was the culmination of years of advocacy and the year long process of implementation of policy decisions of the ELCA churchwide assembly.  Prior to this celebratory service, the Congregation of St Francis Lutheran Church of San Francisco, one of the original dissenting congregations that had been expelled by the ELCA, voted overwhelmingly to begin the process of returning to the ELCA.  So, two momentous events occurred yesterday in California, visible signs that the ELCA has become open and welcoming to all God’s children.

The Associated Press article included the following:

Seven pastors who work in the San Francisco Bay area and were barred from serving in the nation’s largest Lutheran group because of a policy that required gay clergy to be celibate are being welcomed into the denomination, the Associated Press reports.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America will add six of the pastors to its clergy roster at a service at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in San Francisco on Sunday. Another pastor who was expelled from the church, but was later reinstated, will participate in the service.

The group is among the first gay, bisexual or transgender Lutheran pastors to be reinstated or added to the rolls of the ELCA since the organization voted last year to lift the policy requiring celibacy.

And this is from the New York Times:

With a laying on of hands, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America on Sunday welcomed into its fold seven openly gay pastors who had until recently been barred from the church’s ministry.

The ceremony at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in San Francisco was the first of several planned since the denomination took a watershed vote at its convention last year to allow noncelibate gay ministers in committed relationships to serve the church.

“Today the church is speaking with a clear voice,” the Rev. Jeff R. Johnson, one of the seven gay pastors participating in the ceremony, said at a news conference just before it began. “All people are welcome here, all people are invited to help lead this church, and all people are loved unconditionally by God.”

A local San Francisco newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle, reported,

Seven Bay Area gay and transgender pastors were reinstated into the national Lutheran church on Sunday after being barred for two decades from serving in the denomination.

It was a day of mixed feelings for the “Bay Area Seven” – the Revs. Jeff Johnson, Megan Rohrer, Paul Brenner, Craig Minich, Dawn Roginski, Sharon Stalkfleet and Ross Merkel – who saw the event as an act of reconciliation with the church that once shunned them.

“We finally got to the direction we knew the Lutheran church was heading. It just took it longer to get there,” Johnson said.

The blog of LCNA joyfully adds:

And then, in the afternoon, at a wondrous service held in St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, seven pastors on the Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries roster were received onto the roster of the ELCA: Rev. Paul Richard Brenner, Rev. Jeff Robert Johnson, Rev. Ross Donald Merkel, Rev. Craig Michael Minich, Rev. Dawn Marie Roginski, Rev. Megan Marie Rohrer and Rev. Sharon Sue Stalkfleet were received.

Bishop Mark Holmerud of the Sierra Pacific Synod presided. Also participating were Bishop Dean Nelson of the Southwest California Synod, Bishop David Brauer-Rieke of the Oregon Synod, Bishop Emeritus of Southwest California Synod Paul Egertson, Bishop Emeritus Stan Olson of Sierra Pacific Synod, and Bishop Marc Andrus of the Episcopal Diocese of California.

There were 675 people at the celebratory service, 275 more than the sanctuary holds, necessitating seating the overage in the fellowship hall with remote TV screens. Also, hundreds more watched from home via an live online video/audio feed.
The service was one of healing and reconciliation, magnificent music, extraordinary preaching by Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber of the House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, one of remembering those who have gone before, and lifting up the ministry of the received pastors.

Of course, there is ample negativity expressed from the usual suspects.  According to the Times article, Mark Chavez of Lutheran CORE chimed in,

It’s just another steady step taken by the E.L.C.A. to move the denomination further and further away from most Lutheran churches around the world and from the whole Christian church, unfortunately.”

An LCMS blog (Missouri Synod), Brothers of John the Steadfast, that was the cheerleader for the recent LCMS uprising that ousted its existing conservative leadership team for an even more conservative slate, felt compelled to judge according to the following statement,

I was at a wedding reception last night and referred to the ELCA as “apostate.” Not everyone appreciated that determination. I realize it is debatable but to me, the ELCA is beyond being a mixed (heterodox) denomination. I realize there are still believing Christians in the denomination but for the life of me I cannot figure out why they stay. The ones I have talked to have admitted that neither they nor there pastors are doing anything to protest the decisions of the ELCA General Assembly. That makes no sense to me.

Thanks to Pr. Roger Gallup for alerting us to this Associated Press story. It reminds us how far the ELCA has moved away from Christ’s true word and how important it is for us in the LCMS and for all Christians, to beware of adapting the culture to the Christian faith.

And finally, in a rant reminiscent of the now discredited Pastor Thomas Brock of Minneapolis, Pastor Mark Herringshaw of North Heights megachurch of St Paul called down God’s wrath on the ELCA.  After a windy recounting of the tornado that whirled past the 2009 Churchwide assembly, which he contrasted with the absence of meteorological phenomena in San Francisco yesterday, Herringshaw’s invective concluded:

Is God’s silence and seeming consent an even darker and more terrifying judgment. Perhaps he has simply withdrawn his hand. Judgment and discipline is a form of love. But silence… That’s the most frightening judgment! … May God have mercy! And may he again show his mercy in his hand of judgment.

“Have mercy! Lord, do not remain silent! Do not leave the ELCA alone to ferment in their own folly! Act again, in judgment if need be. Just do not turn your face completely and walk away!”

UPDATE:  The sermon was offered by Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber of the House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver.  Her own blog, Sarcastic Lutheran, contains several excellent photos as well as text and video versions of her sermon.