In the fall of 1983, one of my seminary classmates confided that he was gay. He seemed apprehensive about sharing this information with me. We had been friends for over a year but this part of himself he had kept hidden even as we had shared many other details of our lives. For me, his revelation opened a door into an alien world. Certainly I was aware of the existence of homosexuals. Some faculty members and students at my undergraduate college were gay – some openly, others more discreetly. With my friend’s revelation, however, for the first time I saw homosexuality touch the community of those seeking ordination. In the next few years, I would sometimes find myself as the only straight man at the table and wonder what role I would play in bridging those two worlds.
During my seminary years, I read many of the books which these friends shared with me and met some of the authors. Most significant was John Fortunato’s Embracing the Exile and James Nelson’s Embodiment and Between Two Gardens. In those books, I found good solid theological arguments for the full inclusion of gays and lesbians in the ordained ministry of the church. At that point, the issue of bi-sexual and transgendered persons was not discussed. At the age of twenty-three, I felt sure that the issue of sexual orientation should not be a hindrance in and of itself in the path to ordination.
As I began to serve congregations, I discovered that the laity appeared more conservative on these issues. Perhaps their opposition to gay and lesbian couples in leadership roles in the church came from a lack of experience. Maybe, it arose out of their notion of the pastor as a model for young people. In addition to what I heard in the congregation, I noticed that the attitudes toward sex in our society as a whole were shifting away from its procreative purpose toward a purely recreational activity. With these influences, I found myself moving toward a more conservative position.
During the twenty-five years of my ordained ministry, issues concerning the place of gays and lesbians in the rostered ministry of the church have remained in the forefront of discussions in the church. It seems as if every synod assembly has a resolution or a discussion related to the topic. The ELCA’s Visions and Expectations which delineated what was acceptable behavior for the rostered leaders of the church simply divided the world between single and married; the more complex issues of ordained persons in committed same-gender relationships were not considered.
Ironically, at assemblies where the theoretical issue of gay and lesbian clergy would be debated for hours, the vote to approve candidates for ordination would happen with no discussion about sexual orientation. I remember clearly the three-hour debate in Louisville, Kentucky in which the delegates expressed strong opposition to gay and lesbian clergy followed by the approval of five candidates for ordination, three of whom were gay. Since I was “in the know,” I was aware of persons who lived dual lives. We would joke about the pastor who brought his partner as a lay delegate to an assembly. We were saddened by the couples who had to maintain two phone lines in order to keep their cover.
Even as my theological position shifted toward a more traditional position, I became involved with organizations outside the church which readily accepted same-gender couples. The relationships of these individuals appeared no different than those of any other couples I knew. For me, the tension between the greater acceptance of homosexuals in society but rejection for the ordained ministry was and still is confusing.
Ultimately, I became convinced that the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America was not ready for a change in policy and I argued for that. I based that position partly on demographics. If one looks at where the preponderance of ELCA members reside, one notes the conservative political leanings in those areas. At the same time, I noted the repercussions within denominations that had changed policy and on the conversations I heard. I simply felt that we lacked support to make the change and still hold the church together.
After the decision of the 2009 assembly, I resolved the matter for myself by seeing it as an issue related to the polity of the church – how we organize ourselves. Our congregation had no conversations about leaving the ELCA. The few people who initially considered leaving because of the assembly vote decided that this congregation was their home. Earlier decisions of the wider church had provoked different responses, but we learned to live with those decisions. Why should this be any different? Since the calling of a pastor remains the right of the congregation, if we choose not to interview “partnered persons” that remains our prerogative.
From my perspective, this should not be a church-dividing issue. Instead, I think it will allow congregations wherever they were on the GLBT spectrum the freedom to call a pastor and remain a part of this church. At the same time, it lets pastors in same-gender monogamous committed relationships be frank — no more wink, wink, nod, nod. Honesty and openness could prevail.
I live with the ambiguity of the topic knowing that in the history of the church, many issues have taken a long time to be settled. In the grand narrative of God’s relationship with human beings, this is just one more moment in which the repercussions of human decisions will not be truly understood until well beyond our lifetimes.