Bruce Engel, a computer programmer who worships at St. Mary and St. Martha Lutheran Church in the Mission District, summed up what many San Francisco congregations said about the 4.6 million member Evangelical Lutheran Church’s new policy of accepting gay clergy: “It’s about time.”
St. Mary’s and St. Martha’s serves a congregation of about 90, and is one of nine Evangelical Lutheran churches in San Francisco with a total of 1,740 members.
“The world has changed,” said the pastor, Ron Geikow.
The new policy allowing Lutherans in “publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous same-gender relationships” to serve as clergy was adopted last month by the largest U.S. Lutheran denomination at its 11th biennial conference in Minneapolis.
The required two-thirds majority was reached by a single vote, passing 559-451.
Geikow said the vote illustrated something “progressive and real about religion in America today.”
For some in San Francisco, the change brought back memories of the mid-1990s when the church enforced its ban against gay clergy and expelled two San Francisco churches for ordaining sexually active gay clergy: St. Francis in the Castro and First United Lutheran in the Western Addition.
“They were very painful events,” said Jeff Johnson, former pastor of First United. “It felt different from a disciplinary hearing where you’re removing clergy or churches because they’ve actually done something wrong.”
The congregations were given a five-year period during which they were supposed to revert to traditional ways. Both churches were expelled from the denomination on December 31, 1995, after they decided to keep the gay ministers on board.
Now with their dreams of ministry equality finally realized, the question of whether to rejoin the group has come up.
Pastor Susan Strouse of First United said they were thrilled about the change in policy. “But as far as we’re concerned it’s a little late,” she said.
For ministering at an expelled church, Strouse, a heterosexual and pastor at First United for five years, is marked by the denomination as “on leave from call.”
For now, First United must consider how the larger Evangelical Lutheran Church community would benefit them and how First United would benefit the community, said Strouse. “We feel its not enough for them to say, oh well, the policy’s changed come back now,” she said. “We want to see recognition of the pain and hurt the policy caused, a recognition of a wound.”
Strouse hopes the church will recognize ministry credentials awarded by Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries, a Lutheran organization that rosters candidates of all sexual orientations, without making gay clergy jump through additional ordination hurdles.
Similarly, Pastor Dawn Roginski of St. Francis said rejoining the Evangelical Lutheran church is “under consideration” at the church. They have had the initial conversations, but want to make sure to “go through an intentional process to make sure all voices are heard.”
According to Johnson and others, there may be one local Lutheran church opposed to the shift in policy. The church, Chinese Lutheran in the Richmond District, failed to respond to repeated attempts for a comment.
Several American Christian denominations already ordain gay clergy – among them Episcopal, Old Catholic, Reformed Catholic, and Unitarian Universalist churches. Evangelical Lutheran churches in Germany, Sweden, Denmark, and Norway also accept gay clergy in committed relationships.
Outside of San Francisco, some conservative factions of the church have expressed disappointment in the vote, according to the New York Times.
One faction, known as the Lutheran Core, representing 400 conservative congregations, is calling for a meeting in September outside Indianapolis.
Church committee studies of gay ministry policy officially began in 2002. In 2005 the church council delayed a vote on the social statement until the 2009 Church-wide Assembly meeting.
“It feels like a huge step forward just to have an equivalency that hadn’t existed before,” Johnson said. “It’s not a full measure of justice. It’s a half measure. It’s a compromise solution designed to create a community in which conversation and dialogue can continue to happen.”