New York Times, 22 Jan 1990
Milestone in Church: Gay Clergy ordained
By JANE GROSS
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."