On Sunday, May 2, the Hollywood Lutheran Church installed an openly avowed practicing homosexual as their pastor, despite Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) policies that dictate otherwise. The recent installation is one of many that have been occurring not only in the ELCA but also in several mainline protestant denominations in the past few decades in the U.S.
According to Mark Chavez, director of the Word Alone Network – a renewal movement within the ELCA – the frequency of these events and complacent silence to the blatant violations of church policy have both been on the rise in recent years.
“There is minimal response because they have been happening since day one in the ELCA with the tacit or explicit support of some churchwide leaders,” said Pastor Chavez.
Such has been the case in the Hollywood Lutheran Church. Although the May 2 installation ceremony of the openly gay Rev. Daniel M. Hooper had been widely publicized, the national ELCA office has not taken any action to halt it.
“It is a local congregation and it involves people who are not on the clergy roster." said John Brooks, communications director for the ELCA.
According to Brooks, the national office does uphold the church policy that prohibits practicing homosexuals from serving as pastors. However, action is taken at a more local level, where the local bishop has jurisdiction.
“The church does not allow homosexuals who are practicing homosexuality to be on the clergy roster,” explained Brooks. “But this becomes a matter for the bishops to deal with.”
The National Office reacted in a similar fashion to the case of Rev. Jennifer Masion, an open and practicing lesbian that was installed last month at San Bernardino’s Central City Lutheran Church, and to Rev. Jay Wiesner, an open and practicing gay who is set to be installed at the Bethany Lutheran Church in Minneapolis this summer.
“It has happened in a few isolated places in isolated areas,” acknowledged Brooks. “But they are local happenings and local congregations have made their decision to call pastors out of the national ELCA roster.”
“It becomes a matter for the synod bishop,” continued Brooks. “We do not get involved at the national level but it becomes a matter for the local bishops.”
According to Rev. Chavez, when a congregation violates the ELCA constitution, the bishop can discipline the individual church in three ways—censure, suspension or expulsion.
“When a congregation does something in the ELCA that is in conflict without constitution, the bishop is then faced with the choice of whether or not to charge them,” said Chavez. “When a non-celibate homosexual is ordained or installed as pastor, that is a clear violation of church policy, and those are grounds for discipline.”
However, at local the synod level, bishops have been extremely hesitant to discipline the congregations, let alone rebuke them.
In the case of the Minneapolis Area Synod in which the Bethany Lutheran Church takes part, the Bishop Craig E. Johnson merely asked the congregation to ‘withhold the action’ until 2005, when the ELCA legislatures may vote against the current ordination standards.
“I would respectfully ask you to table this vote until the August 2005 actions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Churchwide Assembly,” wrote Bishop Johnson in a letter to the congregation. “I think then the journey before us will be clearer.”
Despite the plea to delay the installation, Bethany Church voted to place Wiesner as their senior pastor by this coming summer. The ceremony will consequently take place outside of the ELCA, since Wiesner is not allowed on the roster of eligible ELCA clergy.
“They would be operating outside of the procedures,” said Kristy Mitchell, communications coordinator of the synod. “He [Wiesner] would be outside of the Vision and Expectation of the ELCA because he is in a committed [homosexual] relationship.”
“A rostered leader must live within the guidelines of the ELCA, which includes the expectations,” explained Mitchell. “If you are living outside of those, you cannot be commissioned and the bishop cannot sign the call papers.”
When asked if Bishop Johnson would take any further steps to discipline the church, Mitchell said, “The consequences are not known.”
In the case of the Southwest California Synod, which oversees the Hollywood Lutheran Church, the Bishop Dean W. Nelson did not make any apparent effort to halt the illegal ceremony.
According to Susan Tapia, call committee for Hollywood Lutheran, the congregation received no notices, letters or calls from the bishop’s office.
“They didn’t contact us at all,” said Tapia. “We didn’t receive any letters or calls from them.”
At Bishop Nelson’s office, the secretary said she was unsure of what action the Bishop may take. At Hollywood Lutheran, the gay pastor Hoover said he does not expect the discipline to be harsh.
“He [bishop Nelson] is actually waiting for us to formally install before he takes action constitutionally,” said Hoover. “If he decides to take action, the harshest discipline would be expelling the congregation… but this hasn’t been done in the last nine years.”
“The slightest would be a letter of admonishment, but we expect something in between,” continued Nelson. “He [Bishop Nelson] too agrees the church should reach out to gays and lesbians.”
However, according to the evangelical Rev. Chavez, it’s not a matter of reaching out to homosexuals for all sinners, homosexual and heterosexual, are welcome in churches, but rather a matter of ethics and integrity.
“Just from an ethical point of view, what kind of integrity do we have if we are turning a blind eye to our own standards in one area, even if in all other areas the church leaders are being consistent?” asked Rev. Chavez, comparing the enforcement of the ELCA policy that says sexually active single heterosexuals and practicing homosexuals are not allowed to become pastors. “It’s a sad commentary on a church when a heterosexual pastor who is in violation of the church’s law is aggressively disciplined, yet homosexual pastors are not.”
Going further, Rev. Chavez explained the biblical and ecumenical reasons to consistently enforce the church standards on ordination.
“The ELCA has prided itself on its ecumenical relationships, and I find it really odd and strange that so many ELCA leaders would either publicly support these actions, pretend like this is not happening, or respond in a very weak manner to those actions that are obviously going to be rejected by almost the whole Christian Church around the world, especially in Africa, Asia and Latin America,” said Rev. Chavez. “If we are so concerned about ecumenical relationships, why are we doing something that is completely destroying these relationships?”
Rev. Chavez noted that at the last assembly of the Lutheran World Federation (LWF)– where the ELCA takes part – the primarily Western LWF staff tried to have the assembly approve a statement that moved in the direction of approving homosexual relationships within the Lutheran community.
“The draft statement had in several places language that leaned in a pro-homosexual direction,” said Chavez. “They went so far as to say there was no biblical model for families.”
However, the leaders of the ‘Global South’ rejected that language in the document and the controversial sections were amended.
“What happened was that the Lutherans from Africa, Latin America and Asia went to the microphone and said “If this assembly adopts this statement, we cannot take it back to our own churches,” and they successfully deleted almost all of the language,” said Chavez.
Similar patterns also arose within the United Methodist Church (UMC), the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA) and the Episcopal Church USA (ECUSA) in recent months.
On March 20, a jury of UMC pastors acquitted a practicing lesbian pastor from charges held against her for practicing homosexuality. Current UMC law clearly states that ‘openly avowed practicing homosexuals are not fit to serve as clergy,’ and every ordained minister must take a vow to uphold the standard. The verdict, which blatantly disregarded the church law, angered several UMC families to a point where they left the denomination.
In the Episcopal Church USA – the American branch of the worldwide Anglican Communion – the bishops approved the consecration of an openly avowed practicing homosexual man as the Bishop of New Hampshire. For several months prior to the consecration, the conservative Episcopalians and Anglicans warned that the ordination would inevitably cause an irrevocable schism within the Communion. However, the ECUSA bishops ignored the pleas and ordained the first openly gay bishop in Anglican history. This move sparked an immediate firestorm of criticism not only within the ECUSA but more so in the 77-million member Anglican Communion.
Since the consecration took place in November 2003, the international archbishops urged the head of the Communion – the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams – to take action against the controversial move, but Williams did nothing more than organize several unsuccessful conferences to ‘converse’ on maintaining unity. Eventually, the leaders of the Global South released a statement rebuking and severing all ties with the ECUSA and rejecting all funding and missionaries from the Western diocese that accept the consecration.
"We do not want any money from the Episcopal Church of the United States of America. This is not rhetoric. It is not a matter of a joke. We mean what we say," the chair of the Council of Anglican Provinces in Africa, said Nigeria's Archbishop Peter Akinola at a press conference held on April 16.
"If we suffer for a while to gain our independence and our freedom and to build ourselves up, I think it will be a good thing for the church in Africa," Akinola said on behalf of 12 archdioceses of Africa and the archdioceses of southeast Asia. “We will not, on the altar of money, mortgage our conscience, mortgage our faith, and mortgage our salvation.”
Within the Presbyterian denomination, the Presbyterian Church of East Africa (PCEA) ordered one of its presbyteries to immediately discontinue partnership with the pro-gay presbyteries in the Presbyterian Church USA. The PCEA also informed the PCUSA that it would not continue fellowship with any church that supports homosexuality.
According to the Presbyterian News Service, the Rev. Samuel Muriguh - executive secretary of the PCEA, said: "The idea of lesbianism or gay-ism … those are very new concepts to us. We've not even thought about it [as an issue] here. It is unbiblical."
The National Capital is one of 10 presbyteries that have called to repeal the PCUSA’s “fidelity/chastity” ordination standard and the denomination’s 26-year old authoritative interpretation that prohibits homosexuals from serving as clergy.
"The PCEA has been stewing about the PCUSA's ongoing debate on ordination standards for more than two years but has been unable to decide how to respond. That changed at the 400-member General Administrative Committee's meeting earlier this month,” Muriguh said.
"A harder line was articulated there, Muriguh continued, in which the PCEA wants to 'cut ties' with presbyteries or churches where people are advocating for acceptance of gay and lesbian relationships 'because we believe … we have our integrity to uphold.'
He said the PCEA has made this decision without regard to finances. "It is better to go without the money," he said.
Rev. Chavez said he expects similar sentiments to arise in the Global Lutheran community, should the ELCA vote in 2005 to lay down the current ordination standards, or continue to remain silent despite clear violations of the ELCA policy.
“I just expect it to happen,” said Chavez, whose group has over 215 congregational adherents. “ The emotion I have is grief… its almost 100 percent predictable.”
“Our convention stated there is no biblical warrant or authorization to bless relationships that are clearly beyond the biblical norm,” said Chavez. “If the ELCA takes this action to do otherwise, the only thing we could ask is ‘Why? Why? Why?’ this is not necessary.”