The Hollywood Lutheran Church in the Southwest California Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) installed a sexually active gay man as its pastor, directly defying the national church’s policy on gay pastors, May 2, 2004. The event, while praised in the 100-member congregation, was scorned from officials and pastors across the nation who chose not to bless or attend the installation.
“I did try to discourage them,” said Bishop Dean W. Nelson. “My authority is not such that I could stop them.”
The ELCA’s policy, entitled, Visions and Expectations, specifies that any pastor serving on the ELCA roster may not be a sexually active homosexual. Therefore, no one from the ELCA board attended or recognized Hollywood’s installation of the Reverend Dan Hooper.
Hooper is not the first such pastor to be installed in ELCA congregations. Despite threats of schisms and discipline, many liberal congregations defied the National church by celebrating that which is not only discouraged by the church but also by the scripture.
Just last month in the neighboring Pacifica Synod, the Central City Lutheran Church installed an open and active lesbian pastor – Jennifer Masion – to head their flock.
In the case of both Masion and Hooper, the synod Bishops have expressed that they plan to take disciplinary action.
“I have not yet responded to the action with regards to both calling or installing the pastor, all of which are contrary to the constitution of the ELCA and the constitution of the church,” said Bishop Nelson on May 6.
Bishop Nelson has several choices of disciplinary action, the lightest being a letter of reprimand, and the harshest being an immediate expulsion from the Nationwide Church.
Nelson said he would consider what action to take over the weekend.
“We have a church council meeting on Saturday, and the church council will provide advise to me, as we look at our response to the Hollywood Lutheran Church,” said Nelson. “The policy is fairly clear on the ELCA constitution, but it is depended on the local bishop’s interpretation and desire,”
According to Pastor Mark Chavez, director of Word Alone renewal network of churches in the ELCA, no congregation in the ELCA has ever been immediately expelled for breaking the policy. Instead, they were often given the letter of censure, which disallows their church from sending representatives to the churchwide assemblies.
“The lightest discipline is called a letter of censure, and the only teeth in it is that the congregation looses some of its privileges in the ELCA,” said Chavez. “It’s more than just a reprimand, and I know this because two of the congregations in the St. Paul area was disciplined in this way.”
The second highest level of discipline is suspending the congregation’s membership; this discipline was used only once in 1990 with three congregations in the bay area.
“I only know of that being used once and it was used in the bay area in 1990, and were given a 5 year suspension,” said Chavez. “That’s how it works.”
The three congregations, however, did not comply with the ELCA laws even the 5 years, and were subsequently expelled.
The harshest discipline is immediate expulsion, but this measure has never been used in the history of ELCA.
“The third and highest level is immediate expulsion and they might give them 30 or 60 days, and that has never been used,” said Chavez.
Meanwhile, at the national level, the ELCA has funded in a four-year study on the issue of sexuality. The study will consider two options: one, to keep current standards on homosexual ordinations. Two, open the roster to sexually active homosexual pastors. The final decision will be made during the 2005 assembly of the ELCA.
According to Chavez, often times these decisions are made without the consent or knowledge of the general ELCA public. Therefore, it is necessary that the individuals know and understand the crisis that has been hitting the denomination.
“I think more attention devoted to this action helps the church because in the ELCA, decisions are made by a small number of people, and the general members only find out about them after the assembly is over,” said Chavez.
Therefore, on a positive note, the illegal consecration may have good effect, such as whathappened in the United Methodist Church – the UMC general conference strengthened its wording against homosexual ordinations following a highly publicized church trial of an actively lesbian pastor.
“I think the more that It becomes known that congregations and individuals are doing this, and contrary to what the scriptures have to say, I think it does alert many people in the church and wake them up and help them to realize that its not just the civil society that’s being pushed by the Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender lobby, but this lobby is at work in the church.
At that end, the public will await the next step of Bishop Nelson, who refrained from commenting on what that action would be. In its place, he simply said, “There will be a disciplinary action taken.”