As a lesbian in a committed relationship, Hill is not an approvedcandidate for ordination in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America(ELCA). Nonetheless, she will be ordained Saturday (April 28) in St.Paul in a service the ELCA considers "irregular." One active and threeretired bishops of the Lutheran church will participate.
Hill (not the woman who testified against Supreme Court JusticeClarence Thomas) is a lay "pastoral minister" at St. Paul-ReformationLutheran Church in St. Paul, a congregation of the ELCA where she hasworked for 14 years. Since 1994 she has been licensed by the ELCA'sSaint Paul Area Synod to preach and administer Holy Communion there.
The service will not be an ordination of the ELCA. Acting withoutapproval from the local synod, St. Paul-Reformation extended a "call" toHill in December, a move that put the congregation in violation of ELCApolicy.
Hill describes it as "a call to word and sacrament ministry for allpeople" rather than a particular call to ministry among gay and lesbianpeople. "The particularity is my own life, my story. It helps me toreach out with education to people who are not gay and to those whoare," she explained.
"I have been living the pastoral experience since 1994 -- to be withall the people with pastoral care and pastoral ministry, in their greatjoy and great sadness, helping them make sense of it all. My particulargifts are to talk about sexuality and help build understanding," Hillsaid.
Hill's ordination will be the third time a congregation of the 5.2million-member church has broken ranks to ordain an individual who hasnot agreed to the ELCA's rule that "ordained ministers who arehomosexual in their self-understanding ... abstain from homosexualsexual relationships."
While Hill stands at the center of the controversy, she says thereare larger issues at play.
"I hope people can see that this is not about one person," Hillsaid. "I hope they can get a look inside our congregation. This is achurch afire with the Holy Spirit," she said, noting that St.Paul-Reformation received 29 new members on Palm Sunday and worshipattendance is close to 200 each Sunday.
The church's bishop, the Rev. Mark Hanson, said he cannotparticipate in the ordination service, but praises St. Paul-Reformationas "a vital and important ministry in this synod, a thriving, growingurban congregation in a time when the ELCA is seeking to remain vibrantin the city, especially given the migration of many Lutherans in recentyears to the suburbs and exurbs."
"St. Paul-Reformation's ministry is not singularly among the gaycommunity, but that is one expression of their intentionally reachingout and welcoming the very diverse population of the city. And thecongregation is a significant part of the synod's urban strategy,"Hanson said.
On her third application for ELCA candidacy, Hill was accepted,pending changes in the requirements for ordination. Hill subsequentlysought and received approval through the Extraordinary CandidacyProject, a group of ELCA members committed to finding church homes forgay clergy.
The congregation says it did not set out to break the rules when itdecided to intentionally call a gay or lesbian pastor. Instead, thechurch asked the Saint Paul Area Synod to find a way to change thelanguage of church rules on ordination to provide an exception for Hill.The Synod Council went to bat for the congregation and brought theproposal to the national Church Council a year ago. In November the ELCAChurch Council rejected the proposal to allow for exceptions.
"We have to take this step forward," Hill said. "We fervently hopedand prayed for the Church Council to provide an exception, to somehowmake St. Paul-Reformation a pilot site for an openly gay pastor. Itseems now that this is the way to go. It would be more harmful to thecommunity's faith and outreach not to."
One of St. Paul-Reformation's pastors, the Rev. Paul Tidemann, saidhis church is intentionally breaking the rules in order to further themessage of the Gospel. The church "understands order for the sake of thegospel, but in this case such ordering now impedes the gospel andjustice," he said.
The controversy is putting other bishops in difficult positions,creating a "confusing message" for the church, according to Hanson. LosAngeles Bishop Paul W. Egertson is one of the four active and retiredLutheran bishops set to take part in the rite of ordination. The othersare the Rev. Lowell O. Erdahl, bishop emeritus of the Saint Paul AreaSynod; the Rev. Stanley E. Olson, a former bishop of one of the ELCA'spredecessor churches; and the Rev. Krister Stendahl, retired Lutheranbishop of Stockholm, Sweden.