Tag Archives: ELCA

Holy Union 1970

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.”

Indeed.

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.”

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)

California, here I come

Here’s my itinerary for a week-long speaking and book signing tour out west. Presumably, weather won’t interfere like it did for my recent Chicago tour.

Old First Presbyterian San Francisco

The tour starts with a visit to a historic congregation in the heart of San Francisco. Organized in 1849, Old First claims to be the oldest Protestant congregation in California. Pam Byers, formerly executive director of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians and a congregational elder, is handling the arrangements. I’ll be there Monday, March 31, at 7:30 pm.

Pacific School of Religion Berkeley

On Tuesday, I’ll cross the Bay to Berkeley and climb “Holy Hill” to the Pacific School of Religion where I’ll be hosted by the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Ministry and Religion (CLGS). CLGS will soon enter its fifteenth year of “creative scholarship on the interrelations of religion and sexuality / sexual orientation.” I’ll speak in the Bade Museum beginning at 6:30 pm on Tuesday, April 1.

St. Mark Presbyterian Newport Beach

After midweek visits with seldom-seen family and friends, I’ll start a busy weekend in greater LA with a book signing event on Friday, April 4, at 7:00 pm. St. Mark is a thriving, 50-year-old suburban congregation that retains a heart for mission.

Bethel Lutheran Church Los Angeles

For a congregation that features Sanctuary Yoga and Sanctuary Hula, an author book signing may be a bit tame. I’ll visit Bethel on Saturday, April 5, at 7:00 pm.

Claremont United Church of Christ

I’ll preach at both services on Sunday morning, April 6 with informal book discussions after each service. This congregation dates to the nineteenth century when it was the only Protestant church in this college town nestled beneath the San Gabriel Mountains on the eastern edge of Los Angeles County. Many of the parishioners are residents of Pilgrim Place “an intellectually/theologically stimulating, ecologically sensitive, personally active environment.”

Claremont United Methodist Church

I’ll move across town for a Sunday afternoon 2:30 event hosted by the local reconciling community. Several of my contacts recommended this congregation as an appropriate venue because of its strong record of support for the LGBT community.

Cast of characters: Bradley Schmeling and Darin Easler

Ordained a Lutheran pastor in 1989, Rev. Bradley Schmeling stayed home in Ohio for his first call to parish ministry, but then he migrated to Atlanta where he served in a collegiate setting in the Chapel of Emory University. By the time he sought a parish ministry call to St. John’s Lutheran of Atlanta in 2000, both the congregation and his bishop knew of his sexual orientation. The bishop allowed the call process to proceed forward since Rev. Schmeling was celibate, which was in conformity with ELCA ministry policies then in place. Furthermore, Rev. Schmeling promised to advise the bishop if that status ever changed.

Brad-and-DarinIt did. In 2005, Pastor Schmeling fell in love with another ELCA clergyman, Rev. Darin Easler, the pastor of a Zumbrota, Minnesota parish. In 2006, Easler joined Schmeling in Atlanta. Later, when Rev. Easler requested an extension of his “on leave from call” status, he was summarily removed from the clergy roster according to a form letter he received from the ELCA. Meanwhile, Pastor Schmeling fulfilled his earlier promise to his bishop and advised of his relationship change, and his bishop felt obligated to bring charges against him.

Following a six-day trial in January, 2007, a fourteen page decision was issued in February. By a 7 to 5 vote, disciplinary committee members (jurors) held that Pastor Schmeling was precluded from the ordained ministry of the church by virtue of ELCA ministry policies, and the majority stated that they felt compelled to so find. But, the committee was nearly unanimous in declaring that the ministry policy and related disciplinary rules were “at least bad policy, and may very well violate the constitution and bylaws of this church.” “The law is a ass, an idiot,” implied the committee, joining Dickens’ Mr. Bumble, and their written opinion called on synods to memorialize the next church wide assembly in 2007 seeking policy change. Though Pastor Schmeling was removed from the ELCA clergy roster, he continued to serve at St. Johns; the congregation stood in solidarity with their pastor, and the bishop refused to pursue any action against the congregation.

Though the policies weren’t changed in 2007, the race was nearly won. Like a hurdler carefully pacing his steps leading to the last hurdle, the church prepared itself for the dash to the finish line at the church wide assembly in 2009. A moratorium on further ecclesiastical trials based on sexual orientation was put in place, and the task force working on a long-in-process social statement on human sexuality was also tasked with formulating a recommendation for ministry policy change.

Here is a snippet from my book, Queer Clergy, that recounts the scene during the climactic vote at the 2009 assembly, and the picture is of pastors Schmeling and Easler in attendance at the assembly:

The motion to end debate and call the question succeeded on the third try, and the hall hushed as Bishop Hanson invited a prearranged member to lead in prayer. And then came the electronic vote; “push one for yes, two for no,” intoned the bishop. Seen only by him, the tally appeared on the Bishop’s monitor; he hesitated for a moment, and then said, “when the results appear on the big screen, please do not respond with clapping or cheering but with prayer.”

559 yes, 451 no.

Easler and Schmeling at CWA09No one was surprised, but the moment had arrived. Gays and lesbians would soon be allowed into the pulpits and altars of their church to serve as ordained, rostered, ministers of word and sacrament. To be host as well as guest. Openly and honestly. Recognized and supported. The reaction among a thousand voting members and another thousand observers was muted. The plenary hall was suddenly sacred space, and the quiet interrupted only by weeping and the murmur of prayer. By twos and threes and fours and fives, the children of God huddled together in tears and prayer.

Rev. Schmeling and Rev. Easler were the first clergy to benefit from the revised ministry policies, and with a stroke of the pen, they were added back onto the ELCA clergy roster on May 4, 2010. In June, 2012, Pastor Schmeling was called to be senior pastor to a “high steeple” church, Gloria Dei, the largest congregation in St. Paul, Minnesota, and Pastor Easler serves as chaplain to a large Methodist retirement community in Minneapolis.

 

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)

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)

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)

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”)

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).

Cast of Characters Countdown: Jeff Johnson, Phyllis Zillhart, Ruth Frost

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.

T minus thirty days and counting

Queer Clergy cover jpg

We are now at thirty days and counting until Queer Clergy: A History of Gay and Lesbian Ministry in American Protestantism is launched by Pilgrim Press. If you have paid attention to earlier posts, you are aware that this book is a chronicle of the journey to full LGBT inclusion within the mainline denominations, including the UCC, the Episcopal Church, the ELCA, the PC(USA), and the UMC. The narrative recounts the pioneer journey along twisted paths that have recently reached the downslopes, and the churches have accelerated toward full inclusion.

The book is already available for pre-sale through online bookstores. The list price is $27.00, but the online vendors offer discounts; for instance, Amazon.com is currently offering the book for $24.30 plus shipping. The book is also available for pre-orders through the publisher, Pilgrim Press, and Cokesbury, the bookstore of several of the featured denominations.

As the author, I will offer autographed and personally inscribed copies for pre-order. The price will be $24.00 plus shipping with discounts for multiple copies. Use the order form to the right to pay by credit card. Or, simply send me an email, and I will send you an invoice for payment by check. Direct email correspondence is probably the best method for larger orders. Of course, I will need a mailing address and the name(s) of the person(s) to whom the book should be inscribed.