Lutherans Expel Two S.F. Groups
Congregations refused to defrock 3 gays
Monday, January 1, 1996 · Page A13
©1996 San Francisco Chronicle
Dan Levy, Chronicle Staff Writer
Two small San Francisco congregations that defied the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America by ordaining sexually active lesbians and a gay man worshiped for the last time yesterday as members of the national denomination.
St. Francis Lutheran Church on Church Street and First United Lutheran Church on Geary Boulevard were packed for the Eucharist and morning service, the last to be held as part of the 5.3 million- member denomination.
In 1990, an Evangelical Lutheran Church of America disciplinary committee suspended the churches for ordaining the Revs. Ruth Frost, Phyllis Zillhart and Jeff Johnson, who are all graduates of official Lutheran seminaries but are not accepted as pastors because they refuse to take vows of sexual abstinence.
The committee ruled that the San Francisco churches would be expelled if the ordinations were not rescinded by yesterday. Under church policy, gays and lesbians can be ordained but are not allowed to be in same-sex relationships. There are no restrictions for heterosexual pastors.
Johnson, pastor at First United, was upbeat but a bit sardonic yesterday. He said the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, the other main Lutheran denomination, is more conservative than the one that will not accept him.
``They don't even recognize gay and lesbian'' as a normal orientation, Johnson said. ``At least in this one, we're not sick, just excluded.''
Bishop praises church
Despite the expulsion, congregants said they are proud that the churches have stood by their gay pastors. Bishop Robert Mattheis of the Sierra Pacific Synod, which represents 220 congregations in Northern California and Northern Nevada, presided over the service at St. Francis and praised the church for being a pioneer.
``I grieve (the expulsion), but I remain hopeful that God is a God of the future,'' Mattheis said after the service.
James DeLange, senior pastor at St. Francis, where Zillhart and Frost serve, said no congregants have left his church as a result of the expulsion. Other Lutheran congregations in San Francisco have invited members of the two dissident churches to join if they want to remain a part of the national denomination.
St. Francis was founded over 100 years ago by Scandinavian immigrants, and since 1905 has been located on Church Street in the Castro district. First United was established in 1888 as San Francisco's first English-speaking Lutheran church.
After the morning service at St. Francis yesterday, congregants enjoyed refreshments and socialized as if it was just another Sunday.
``We're pretty well established in the community, and we're a strong and vital congregation,'' DeLange said. ``And I know there is a lot of support for us outside this church.''
But there were more visitors than usual, including Kris Johnson, an Upper Market resident who came to the service as a show of support for a gay friend.
``I came because I know about the work of this church,'' she said. ``I can't bear the thought of anybody being cut off for something they want or need.''