2016-07-27
ST. PAUL, Minn., April 23 (RNS) -- Anita Hill spent five hours visiting the sick on Easter Monday, a day she had hoped to spend relaxing. Not unusual for a pastor, but Hill isn't a pastor -- yet.

As a lesbian in a committed relationship, Hill is not an approved candidate 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 three retired bishops of the Lutheran church will participate.

Hill (not the woman who testified against Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas) is a lay "pastoral minister" at St. Paul-Reformation Lutheran Church in St. Paul, a congregation of the ELCA where she has worked for 14 years. Since 1994 she has been licensed by the ELCA's Saint Paul Area Synod to preach and administer Holy Communion there.

The service will not be an ordination of the ELCA. Acting without approval from the local synod, St. Paul-Reformation extended a "call" to Hill in December, a move that put the congregation in violation of ELCA policy.

Hill describes it as "a call to word and sacrament ministry for all people" rather than a particular call to ministry among gay and lesbian people. "The particularity is my own life, my story. It helps me to reach out with education to people who are not gay and to those who are," she explained.

"I have been living the pastoral experience since 1994 -- to be with all the people with pastoral care and pastoral ministry, in their great joy and great sadness, helping them make sense of it all. My particular gifts are to talk about sexuality and help build understanding," Hill said.

Hill's ordination will be the third time a congregation of the 5.2 million-member church has broken ranks to ordain an individual who has not agreed to the ELCA's rule that "ordained ministers who are homosexual in their self-understanding ... abstain from homosexual sexual relationships."

While Hill stands at the center of the controversy, she says there are larger issues at play.

"I hope people can see that this is not about one person," Hill said. "I hope they can get a look inside our congregation. This is a church afire with the Holy Spirit," she said, noting that St. Paul-Reformation received 29 new members on Palm Sunday and worship attendance is close to 200 each Sunday.

The church's bishop, the Rev. Mark Hanson, said he cannot participate in the ordination service, but praises St. Paul-Reformation as "a vital and important ministry in this synod, a thriving, growing urban congregation in a time when the ELCA is seeking to remain vibrant in the city, especially given the migration of many Lutherans in recent years to the suburbs and exurbs."

"St. Paul-Reformation's ministry is not singularly among the gay community, but that is one expression of their intentionally reaching out and welcoming the very diverse population of the city. And the congregation 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 subsequently sought and received approval through the Extraordinary Candidacy Project, a group of ELCA members committed to finding church homes for gay clergy.

The congregation says it did not set out to break the rules when it decided to intentionally call a gay or lesbian pastor. Instead, the church asked the Saint Paul Area Synod to find a way to change the language of church rules on ordination to provide an exception for Hill. The Synod Council went to bat for the congregation and brought the proposal to the national Church Council a year ago. In November the ELCA Church Council rejected the proposal to allow for exceptions.

"We have to take this step forward," Hill said. "We fervently hoped and prayed for the Church Council to provide an exception, to somehow make St. Paul-Reformation a pilot site for an openly gay pastor. It seems now that this is the way to go. It would be more harmful to the community's faith and outreach not to."

One of St. Paul-Reformation's pastors, the Rev. Paul Tidemann, said his church is intentionally breaking the rules in order to further the message of the Gospel. The church "understands order for the sake of the gospel, but in this case such ordering now impedes the gospel and justice," he said.

The controversy is putting other bishops in difficult positions, creating a "confusing message" for the church, according to Hanson. Los Angeles Bishop Paul W. Egertson is one of the four active and retired Lutheran bishops set to take part in the rite of ordination. The others are the Rev. Lowell O. Erdahl, bishop emeritus of the Saint Paul Area Synod; the Rev. Stanley E. Olson, a former bishop of one of the ELCA's predecessor churches; and the Rev. Krister Stendahl, retired Lutheran bishop of Stockholm, Sweden.

Hanson is careful to note that the bishops' presence does not make the ceremony an "official" ELCA ordination. But Hill said the presence of the bishops "means people with stature and authority and position in the Lutheran church chose to stand with us in this action of ecclesiastical disobedience. It raises the witness to have each of these leaders take part -- that is important."

In a letter to ELCA Presiding Bishop H. George Anderson, Egertson said, "The real risks are taken by those who put themselves and not just their words on the line. At this point in my ministry, I can no longer advocate this cause with credibility from a position of personal safety. I am called to join in solidarity with those who are willing to be hurt as well as be heard, walking the way of the cross."

Anderson has asked Egertson to reconsider his decision, and will wait until after the ordination service to weigh any disciplinary measures.

The Saint Paul Area Synod and its bishop have a number of options to consider in light of St. Paul-Reformation's actions. A formal discipline process might lead to censure and admonition by the bishop, suspension from the church, or removal from the roster.

A congregation in Kansas City, Mo., came under censure in a similar situation earlier this year. The synod has not set a date for a decision, Hanson said, acknowledging his torn loyalties.

"The church continually reorders itself for the sake of the gospel and justice," Hanson said, but added, "Functioning as a bishop doesn't exempt me from upholding the order of this church."

more from beliefnet and our partners