Gay rights a hot topic in Lutheran churches

Star Tribune, May 18, 2003
Kim Palmer, Star Tribune

Minnesota Lutherans are not known as a racy bunch. But the hot topic now in many congregations is sex.

Specifically, gay sex. And whether sexually active gay individuals should be ordained as pastors, receive blessings for commitment ceremonies, or just be welcome in church.

Many faiths are wrestling with such issues, but the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) — Minnesota’s second-largest denomination, behind Catholicism — is in the thick of things as never before.

This month, three metro-area ELCA churches have taken on three big debates:

• Lutheran Church of Christ the Redeemer in southwest Minneapolis will install a partnered lesbian pastor today, defying the ELCA’s requirement that unmarried clergy, gay or straight, be celibate.

• Also today, Pilgrim Lutheran of St. Paul will vote on a “statement of welcome” to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered (GLBT) people.

• On May 4, another St. Paul congregation, Gloria Dei, voted by a wide margin to allow its pastors to bless same-sex unions. The ELCA has no official policy prohibiting such blessings, but church leaders have discouraged them.

Leaders have urged churches to talk about these issues, however, well ahead of the 2005 Churchwide Assembly, during which members will discuss the results of a four-year sexuality study and consider changing the ban on ordaining noncelibate gays and lesbians.

“I’m worried that large segments of the ELCA are choosing not to have conversations about these issues,” the Rev. Mark Hanson, the ELCA’s presiding bishop, told the Metro Lutheran monthly newspaper in April. “Most of us grew up in homes where we didn’t talk about sexuality, and now we’re going to fumble through with this new challenge.” If Lutherans don’t talk openly now — and instead await the assembly’s decision and then react — “we will have a divided church,” he said at a pastors’ conference last month.

There are already splits in some congregations. Advocates liken the gay-rights debate to the civil rights movement. Critics contend that they’re being asked to endorse a lifestyle they say the Bible condemns.

A renewed calling

When the Rev. Mary Albing divorced her husband and former co-pastor and came out as a lesbian five years ago, she thought her life as a parish minister was over. “I didn’t intend to stay single, and I didn’t want to lie,” she said.

Today, Albing, 48, will be installed as pastor of Redeemer. The bishop will not “sign the call,” meaning the synod will not officially recognize the installation.

Even so, Albing said, the new parish is a blessing. “I feel so grateful. . . . Five years ago, there was no place for me to be.”

Redeemer’s decision to hire Albing, who is in a committed relationship, followed its move five years ago to become a Reconciling in Christ (RIC) congregation, said church council president Ruth Peterson. (RIC is the term for gay-welcoming among ELCA churches.) Two members submitted letters asking the church to consider gay and lesbian pastoral candidates. “The letters said, ‘This seems to be a contradiction, that we welcome [gays and lesbians], but not to the pulpit.’ “

Last fall, church members voted 64 to 9 to change their constitution to allow candidates not on the ELCA roster, including noncelibate gays.

Meanwhile, Albing, a hospital chaplain, was seeking to return to parish ministry. “I missed digging into scripture. I missed going through the lifespan with people, knowing their kids, their pets. I decided to take a chance.”

She filled out the synod’s form indicating her availability, including the question about whether she intended to remain celibate if unmarried. “I put ‘no,’ which triggered a conversation with Bishop [Craig] Johnson,” who heads the ELCA’s Minneapolis Area Synod. (Albing wasn’t an official ELCA candidate; the church learned of her availability through a member who knew her.)

After her first interview, Albing knew she wanted the job. “They’re just the most wonderful people: gracious, smart, informed, living out their faith, interested in social justice.”

And the committee was taken with Albing, Peterson said. “She’s outgoing and warm, highly recommended and an outstanding preacher.” Members voted 58 to 17 to select Albing.

It’s rare for a Lutheran church to seek to include both straight and gay candidates, Albing said. “They didn’t set out to choose a gay person; they just allowed gay people to be part of the equation.”

Albing said her installation is riskier than the high-profile ordination in 2001 of Anita Hill, a lesbian pastor in St. Paul, because Hill was already part of her church, St. Paul-Reformation. Redeemer members “don’t know me. A lot of people must be worrying about the status of the congregation. Some churches have been disciplined.”

Hill’s church received sanctions that precluded congregants from any churchwide leadership role. The sanctions were lifted this year.

Bishop Johnson said he doesn’t anticipate major sanctions against Redeemer: “If anything, we would send a letter of admonishment.”

Albing plans to seek a three-year leave from call, delaying a decision on her status until after the 2005 assembly. “Because our church is in a time of study on this issue, it seems prudent to postpone a decision,” Johnson said.

Albing grew up on a farm near Windom, Minn., and attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Luther Seminary in St. Paul. She and her partner, Jane Lien, a church musician at Central Lutheran in Minneapolis, are “lifelong Lutherans,” Albing said.

Albing’s midlife realization that she was a lesbian was “a very humbling experience,” and the decision to end her marriage was painful, she said. She and her former husband have two teenage children. “I tried to stay married for a long time, but once you figure it out, there’s not much integrity left in the marriage.”

The experience made her stronger and better prepared to be a pastor, she said, but otherwise, “My interest is in preaching, teaching and comforting people. My issue is not GLBT stuff.”

Part of transformation

The welcoming statement before Pilgrim Lutheran today is an acknowledgment — and a pledge. “The larger church has had such a horrid past in how it’s treated GLBT people,” said the Rev. Carol Tomer, lead pastor. “It’s part of our repentance and transformation, to name it aloud and be very clear about our intentions for the future.”

The vote, if affirmative, would make Pilgrim one of about two dozen RIC congregations in the state, out of 1,178 ELCA churches. About 100 Minnesota congregations of various denominations called themselves gay-welcoming in 2002, according to Open Hands, a Chicago-based ecumenical publication that supports the trend. There are 5,100 or more congregations in the state.

Pilgrim’s welcoming statement hasn’t been particularly contentious, members said. Still, some question the need.

Diane Schneeberger of Mendota Heights said she first became concerned after her 8-year-old daughter, who attends a Lutheran school affiliated with a more conservative denomination, asked about the words “gay” and “lesbian” in the church bulletin.

“I haven’t even told her about the birds and bees,” she said. “I have gay friends, but I don’t think it needs to be discussed in church. No one asks me what my sexual preference is. . . . It’s hard enough for a parent to explain the regular stuff.”

Three days before the vote, Schneeberger said she remained “torn about what is right” but was leaning toward voting no. “We have been totally stressed about this.” A member for 11 years, she has started looking at other churches.

Gene Baum of St. Paul also has reservations. Gays and lesbians are “as welcome as the next person” at Pilgrim, he said. “[But] when you single out one group, you’re excluding others.”

Jodi Gustafson, Pilgrim’s music director, who is a lesbian, believes specific welcome is needed because historically gay people have felt anything but welcome. “From the institutional church, not just Lutheran, all you hear is a series of condemnation messages. It’s intimidating to walk through the door if you’re a person already at risk of rejection. If we want [gays] to feel welcome, we have to say so.”

To prepare for the vote, Pilgrim members underwent a year of seminars, Bible study and discussion. The church also has tried to reach out to members who may be uncomfortable with the statement or who have questions, Tomer said, “not to change their minds but to let them know there’s room for diversity of opinion. . . . My concern is not a literal number of yeses or nos, but a way to be together on this.”

Pastors’ discretion

There are no same-sex blessing requests pending at Gloria Dei, but its pastors are now free to use their discretion when they come up, said the Rev. M. Susan Peterson, the lead pastor. The congregation’s recent vote is part of a process that began a few years ago. Several couples had approached her, and Peterson felt she needed congregational input. The church council concluded that a decision on same-sex blessings was “putting the cart before the horse,” Peterson said, and began a lengthy process of study and discussion. That led to a unanimous voice vote in 2000 to become an RIC congregation.

At the annual meeting a year and a half ago, a member urged the church to take up the same-sex blessing issue, Peterson said. There was more discussion and study.

The resolution that resulted “affirms the pastors and their decisions,” Peterson said, and “relieves the congregation of theological responsibility.”

Gay couples will be required to take part in premarital counseling, just as straight couples are, to prepare them for a “lifelong committed relationship,” Peterson said.

The vote on the resolution was 206 to 53. There was no discussion at the meeting, but immediately after the vote, Peterson said, she addressed those in attendance. “I acknowledged that we are divided, and that our faith is bigger than this issue,” she said. “I don’t see this vote as a victory; I see the process of getting there as a sign of our growth and faith.”

Wedding coordinator Helen Arneson voted no, but she’s still willing to handle same-sex unions.

And she’s glad the congregation addressed the topic. “That’s what I love about Gloria Dei — it’s so open. We at least talk about things.”

‘Very painful’

At some ELCA congregations, gay-welcoming efforts have been started only to stall or be blocked. At least one postponed the process after the pastor saw that a vote would be divisive.

Randi Reitan of Eden Prairie considered leaving Central Lutheran in Minneapolis after a May 2001 vote by more than 500 members on whether to become an RIC congregation failed by 10 votes.

The vote was “very painful” for Reitan, who said she chose the church after learning that her youngest son, Jake, was gay, largely because it seemed gay-friendly. “A lot of gay members left.”

The Reitans stayed, but with “very mixed feelings. We’ve been Lutheran all our lives. It’s hard to walk away from these organized churches.”

Reitan is a member of Soulforce, an interfaith group that promotes nonviolent protest aimed at ending “spiritual violence” against gays and lesbians. She’s been arrested twice during vigils at church conventions. And she keeps up the cause at Central Lutheran. “We take the gifts of these beautiful people and then treat them like there’s something wrong with them,” she said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Tuesday May 20, 2003.
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