Thursday, July 19, 1990

NY Times: Lutherans Punish 2 Churches for Gay Ordinations

New York Times, 19 July 1990
Lutherans Punish 2 Churches for Gay Ordinations

SAN FRANCISCO, July 18 -- After an extraordinary public hearing, thought to be the first by a church on the issue of ordaining homosexuals, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America suspended two congregations today for ordaining an openly gay men and two lesbians.

The five-year suspensions, which fall short of the expulsions that were possible, come at a time when virtually all mainstream denominations are wrestling with homosexual ordination. The decision of the disciplinary committee, characterized anguish at the need to impose punishment, reflects that struggle.

The committee chastised the national church for having "ignored homosexual people and their story of faith," urged the two congregations "to continue to be a voice a a witness" and begged the church to reconsider its policy over the next five years.

If church policy remains the same and if the two congregations remain in violation of it five years from now, they will be expelled, the committee said. That decision drew a written dissent from 5 of the panel's 14 members.
Practical Impact is Limited

Until 1995, then, the suspensions have little practical impact on the two congregations, where the gay pastors wil continue their ministry without recognition from the national church.

The three ministers, Jeff Johnson at First United Lutheran Church and Ruth Frost and Phyllis Zillhart at St. Francis Lutheran Church, were ordained last winter, providing the first real crisis for the 5.3-million-member Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The church, the fourth-largest denomination in the United States, was created in 1988 by the merger of three Lutheran groups.

Like many denominations, the three groups had tolerated gay clergy as long as they were silent, or at least oblique, about their sexuality. And like many others before, him, Mr. Johnson had been certified for the ministry by a bishop who knew of his sexual preference but chose not to make it an issue.

But the merged church took a more explicit approach, asking Mr. Johnson to take a pledge of lifelong celibacy and withdrawing his certification by the predecessor church when he would not. In response, a number of Bay Area Lutheran clergy banded together to press the issue by finding a congregation that would risk expulsion from the church by ordaining Mr. Johnson and by recruiting a lesbian candidate for another congregation.
Plea for Reconsideration

The national and regional bishops of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America urged the group to reconsider. But First United and St. Francis chose to go forward with the renegade ordinations on last Jan. 20.

At the three-day hearing here, witnesses for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America argued that the church constitution had been violated when the congregations had ordained candidates not on the church's "call roster," which excludes "practicing" homosexuals. The two congregations acknowledged that they had technically violated the constitution, but argued that they were fostering the higher goal of the church to be an "inclusive fellowship."

The church called only four witnesses, including Bishop Lyle Miller of the Sierra Pacific Synod, Mr. Johnson's childhood pastor and longtime friend, who had with great ambivalence filed the charges against the two congregations. The four witnesses, all church officials, spoke of the chaos implicit in permitting congregations to ordain unauthorized candidates.

The two congregations called about 30 witnesses. Among them were pastors who described the routine practice of ordaining homosexuals as long as they disguised their sexuality, and gay men and women who said they had left the church because it insisted on such silence.
Testimony of Anguish

Mr. Johnson, Ms. Frost and Ms. Zillhart were among the witnesses. They described the process of publicly ackknowledging their homosexuality to church officials, being spurned and then finding congregations willing to let them work openly. ALso testifying were the senior pastors of the two accused congregations, the Rev. James DeLange of St. Francis, where half the 130 members are openly homosexual, and the Rev. John Frykman of First United, where not of the 100 members except Mr. Johnson is openly gay.

Both Mr. DeLange and Mr. Frykman said their congregations had acted in the best tradition of the Lutheran Church, which was born in a 16th Century act of protest. They also commended the disciplinary committee for agreeing to an extended airing of the issue, rather than hewing to the consitutional violation, which would have been resolved in minutes.

Monday, January 22, 1990

NY Times: Milestone in Church: Gay Clergy ordained

New York Times, 22 Jan 1990
Milestone in Church: Gay Clergy ordained

SAN FRANCISCO, Jan. 21 -- When Jeff Johnson was a boy, he prayed in the Rev. Lyle Miller's church and went camping with the pastor's children. When Mr. Johnson entered the seminary, his spiritual mentor was as proud as if he were family.

Today, at First United Lutheran Church here, Jeff Johnson celebrated the eucharist for the first time as a newly ordained minister, but Mr. Miller was not there to watch.

Mr. Johnson is an open gay man, who, along with two lesbians, was ordained here Saturday in defiance of church rules. This morning the two lesbians, Phyllis Zillhart and Ruth Frost, presided at the Sunday service and baptized a baby at St. Francis Lutheran Church.

Lyle Miller is the bishop of the regional synod, the man who denied Mr. Johnson and the others ordination in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and who is expected to discipline the two churches where they will serve.

The bishop guessed that neither he nor Mr. Johnson was "sleeping very well" these days. "This changes and strains our relationship," Mr. Miller said. "But it helps people see that we who function as bishops are not cold bureaucrats who make decisions without regard to human beings."

Mr. Johnson, a graduate of Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in Berkeley, agreed that it was painful to challenge someone so dear to him. "But in the long run, it might be beneficial," he said. "We are not able to vilify each other or dismiss each other. We are forced to struggle with each other on a family level."

The struggle over gay ordinations, going on in virtually all mainstream denominations, is the most volatile issue facing the newly merged 5.3-million-member Lutheran Church. Mr. Johnson was certified for ordination just before the 1988 joining of three smaller denominations, which often accepted gay ministers as long as they were quiet about it.

But the merged church took a more explicit approach, asking Mr. Johnson to pledge celibacy and withdrawing his certification when he would not. In response, a group of Bay Area clergy members banded together to press the issue, find a church willing to risk expulsion by calling Mr. Johnson to be ordained, and recruit a lesbian candidate at the same time.

After a national search, they chose Ms. Zillhart and Ms. Frost, both graduates of the Luther Northwestern Seminary in St. Paul, who have lived together for five years. The two women were certified for ordination but later withdrew so they could live openly as a gay couple.

The two churches that hired the gay ministers came to their decisions by very different routes. Half the congregants at St. Francis are gay and consider it their mission to have a gay minister, said the pastor, the Rev. James DeLange. At First United Lutheran, which has no openly gay members, the pastor, the Rev. John Frykman, called it "a justice issue."

On Saturday, robed in white, the three candidates were welcomes into the church by about 40 Lutheran ministers, who conducted the ordination rites in place of the bishop. The sermon, a militant call for gay men and women to lead "unapologetic" lives, was delivered by the Rev. Carter Heyward, a lesbian who is a professor at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass., and who was ordained in an unauthorized ceremony before the church accepted women as ministers.

Lutheran officials say they are sympathetic to those excluded from the ministry and have embarked on a study of sexuality and church policy. But they say the explicit challenge by the San Francisco churches is more likely to polarize the debate than to advance it.

The two churches take exception. "They are asking these people to stay ashamed while the church gets it act together," Mr. DeLange said. "For the people living this every day, this is not a theoretical issue, not something to be endlessly debated."

The three new ministers said their challenge had already succeeded by forcing the church to grpple with an issue it would rather defer. They said they expected to be punished and their ordinations invalidated, at least temporarily.

"It may not be this ministry; it may not be Ruth, Jeff and Phyllis," said Ms. Frost, a third-generation Lutheran pastor, whose late father was an esteemed theologian. "But if it is not Ruth, Jeff and Phyllis now, it will be Susan and Peter and whoever later on, because this will happen. This will come to pass."