Laying hands on a controversial topic

elca 01Lura Groen is a graduate of one of the seminaries that trains pastors for service in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. But because she refuses to adhere to a chastity requirement, she is not on the approved roster of the ELCA. But a Houston congregation called Groen, a lesbian who is bisexual, to be their pastor anyway. Now if something similar to this were happening in the Episcopal Church, we'd probably have wall-to-wall coverage. In this case, we have very few mentions -- even in the Houston press.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has ordained gay clergy for years. Since it formed out of a merger of three Lutheran church bodies in 1988, it has defrocked three clergy for violating the church body's requirement that gay clergy abstain from sexual relationships. At the group's national assembly last year in Chicago, a vote to permit homosexual clergy to engage in sexual relationships failed but another vote requesting that the church body avoid disciplining gay clergy who violate the sexuality policy was passed.

I've complained before that many reporters fail to distinguish between the ELCA and the other Lutheran bodies that don't share the same doctrinal perspective. For instance, my Lutheran church body doesn't even ordain women. I cringed while watching KHCW's broadcasts about the ordination service. The anchor kept referring to "the Lutheran Church's" teachings on gay clergy. The reporter also referred to the "guidelines of the Lutheran Church." Thankfully one of the parishioners interviewed in one report mentioned that the church was affiliated with the ELCA. (Interestingly, a write-up of the broadcast misquoted what he actually said.) And This report from KTRK did specify the denomination in question. All three of these television reports were incredibly one-sided, of course. They kept referring to a vow of celibacy -- even though the ELCA requirements don't mention that word. Single people are required to abstain from sexual relationships and married people are required to be faithful. People who identify as homosexual are required to abstain from "homosexual sexual relationships."

But the best coverage was definitely found in OutSmart, "Houston's gay, lesbian, bi and trans magazine." While the perspective of the publication is apparent, the piece is packed with information about Groen, the congregation she has been called to serve and the ELCA. The article begins with a very lively lede and has some great quotes, but I was impressed with how concisely and readable the sections on the normally snooze-inducing church politics were:

Grace Lutheran Church is a congregation of the ELCA and has a long history in Houston's Montrose neighborhood. Since its organization in 1922, Grace has seen many changes, the most significant to current events being the 1995 decision to become a "Reconciling" congregation, which means they made an official statement of welcome to GLBT folk. Grace has been without a pastor since 2003, and when they felt ready to start interviewing candidates, they informed the bishop's office that they would be considering not only approved candidates from the ELCA, but also from the roster of Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries (ELM).

ELM officially came into being in 2007, but traces its history back to 1990. That was the year when two San Francisco Lutheran congregations called to service three openly gay pastors--Ruth Frost, Jeff Johnson, and Phyllis Zillhart. The eventual result of the extra ordinem ordination of these three was that the ELCA expelled the congregations who called them. In the ensuing years, ELM took form from the various networks of Lutheran pastors and churches who wished to fully include GLBT folk in all aspects of the church's life. Today, they evaluate candidates for ministry and maintain a roster, separate from the ELCA's, of people they have judged suitable for ordained ministry. Grace is the first congregation in Texas to call an ELM candidate.

All of these histories confront one another with Groen's ordination. In calling her to be their pastor, Grace risks being removed from the ELCA, depending upon actions taken by the Churchwide Assembly in 2009. Bishop Michael Rinehart of the Texas-Lousiana Gulf Coast Synod says he will take advantage of the 2007 call for restraint until then, but has been in touch with Grace and Groen, outlining what he can and cannot do for them at this time. For one, Grace will continue to be officially listed as being without a pastor, so Groen will not be able to attend larger church gatherings as a pastor (although she will be eligible to attend as a voting lay member so long as Grace remains in the ELCA). Groen is not eligible for the ELCA insurance or retirement plans.

lura4sm Author Neil Ellis Orts clearly researched the story and it shows. It's really interesting and informative to see the tension between many of the people in the national pews and the decisions of the local bishop. It's not the first time that the best and most in-depth coverage on gay clergy in the ELCA has been out of the gay press.

Other noteworthy coverage included a brief item in the alternative Houston Press:

Asked why she didn't join a denominations that allows opening [sic] gay clergy, Groen says, "I thought about it, but the core of my theology is the very Lutheran idea of grace, the idea that it's God's saving action through Jesus is far more important than anything that we do. I'm a Lutheran. This is the church that I grew up in and the church that I love. This the church that I want to be a part of."

For a very brief item, it's not a bad question to ask and have answered.

It is interesting that this story didn't get more coverage. Other than the local television news shows noted above, the only mainstream mention was a Dallas Morning News religion blog link to the OutSmart piece. Incidentally, the deliciously gossipy and delightfully named LutheranConfessions.com reported that Houston Controller Annise Parker and City Council member Sue Lovell hosted a post-ordination gala at Houston's Briar Club. And Houston mayor Bill White proclaimed July 26, 2008 to be Pastor Lura Groen Day in Houston. Where was the Houston Chronicle on this story?

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