In the late eighties, Bethany Presbyterian of Sacramento was a bustling, thriving congregation. Because of the congregation’s strong, service-oriented presence in the community, Bethany would soon receive the Ecumenical Service Award presented by the General Assembly. Rev. Scott Anderson, their head pastor, was an integral part of their successful ministries.
But then he was outed.
He chose to resign to avoid the “scorn,” “derision,” and an “enormous backlash” that would split the congregation, and he assumed he would merely fight a losing battle that would end with his defrocking anyway. Anderson would later reflect:
Getting outed at Bethany was both the best and worst moment of my life. On the one hand, it was so freeing and empowering to finally be honest about the truth of who I am. On the other hand, it forced me to step away from my passion. The gay issue had never been part of my ministry at Bethany; it hadn’t played any role at all in our conversations there. When out of the blue it became the conversation, I thought it best if I voluntarily resigned from Bethany. I didn’t want the tumult caused by my staying to ultimately prove disruptive to the life of the church.
This background, together with Anderson’s service as a leader of More Light Presbyterians in the nineties, is merely prologue. Though he willingly relinquished his pastoral call in 1990, he would fight vigorously for clergy reinstatement a decade and a half later.
It would be a matter of scruple.
But before jumping to that story, more prologue is necessary. The Presbyterian Adopting Act of 1729 established the right of dissent from non-essentials for clergy and clergy candidates.
And in Case any Minister of this Synod or any Candidate for the Ministry shall have any Scruple with respect to any Article or Articles of sd. Confession or Catechisms, he shall at the Time of making his sd. Declaration declare his Sentiments to the Presbytery or Synod, who shall notwithstanding admit him to ye Exercise of Ministry within our Bounds and to Ministerial Communion if the Synod or Presbytery shall judge his scruple or mistake to be only about articles not Essential and necessary in Doctrine, Worship, or Government.
The right of dissent was re-affirmed in the 1920s in the Fundamentalist-Modernist debate that birthed the term “fundamentalism.” A special commission became known as the “Swearingen Commission,” and their 1927 report affirmed freedom of conscience, recycling the “scruple” of the Adopting Act of 1729. Furthermore, the Commission held that it was not the business of General Assembly to legislate beforehand what was essential and what was not. Such decisions should be left to specific cases and the presbyteries that performed the examination of candidates.
As the new millennium dawned, Scott Anderson had moved to Wisconsin and served as executive director of the Wisconsin Council of Churches, and he was an active participant in the affairs of the John Knox Presbytery. He was appointed to a blue ribbon panel, a theological task force on the Peace, Unity, and Purity of the Church (PUP). After four and a half years of discernment, their report was submitted to the church and adopted by the General Assembly in 2006. A critical insight of the PUP report was the reaffirmation of the legacy of the scruple applicable to the fidelity and chastity requirement for ordination. The PUP Report used the term “departure” instead of “scruple,” but the principle of freedom of conscience remained. Though conservatives “wanted to paint this as a new and dangerous innovation,” it was merely a restatement of Presbyterian principles dating to 1729 and reaffirmed by the Swearingen Commission in 1927.
Anderson himself was the first to test the waters, soon joined by Lisa Larges, and the next few years would witness back-and-forth legislative and judicial wrangling over their candidacies for ordination, despite their sexuality, based upon their dissent from the restrictive policy known as the “fidelity and chastity” requirement. Their respective presbyteries affirmed their candidacies, which then became entangled in the thicket of Presbyterian jurisprudence. While their cases were pending before the Presbyterian “Supreme Court,” the General Assembly rescinded the onerous restriction on LGBT ordination, which was ratified by the presbyteries by the summer of 2011. The pending judicial cases had become moot, and they were dismissed, but they had helped to sway Presbyterian opinion.
On October 8, 2011, the scene shifted to the Covenant Presbyterian Church of Madison, Wisconsin. Outside, a hundred or more LGBT supporters waved rainbow flags to counter the hateful clown show of the Westboro Baptist Church. Inside the sanctuary, a stole returned to its proper place. In 1995, Anderson had offered his ministerial stole, given to him as a gift after his first year of service at Bethany in Sacramento, to the Shower of Stoles project. It was one of over a thousand that had toured the country and appeared at important gatherings.
“Today, for the first time in the life of this collection, a stole is being returned, and in so doing, it is transformed from a symbol of loss to a symbol of hope,” said David Lohman, of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, the director of the Shower of Stoles.
With the stole draped around his neck, Rev. Scott Anderson beamed as he was presented to the crowd of over three hundred. The assembly rose to its feet and began sustained clapping that broke into cheers and shouts. Twenty years after losing access to the pulpit in Sacramento, Rev. Scott Anderson had his homecoming to the ordained ministry. He was the first fruits, the first out gay to be ordained under the new Presbyterian policy. Others would soon follow him into the pulpit.
The book is now available!
Print copies are available from Amazon, the publisher, Barnes and Noble, Cokesbury, 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 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”)
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)