On the ELCA’s Historic Shift to Include Gay Clergy: Reflections of a Self-Exiled Lutheran

On Friday August 21, 2009, the General Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church made a decision that almost brought me to tears.

The feelings weren’t simple ones. At another time it might have felt like triumph. But triumph is what you feel when you finally achieve a victory you’ve struggled for. In my case, the struggle had stopped being mine several years before. And so the joy I felt was intermixed with other feelings harder to name—a sense of something lost, an awareness of distance. It was a bit like driving past your childhood home and observing that the long-needed renovations have finally been made. “Ah, yes,” you might say, choking back the deeper things. “It looks nice.”

Four years ago, I left the ELCA. My family joined a United Church of Christ congregation that was seventy miles from home (UCC churches are relatively rare where I live). Almost every Sunday for four years now, my wife and I have herded two small children into the car in the early morning and driven for over an hour to get to church. I love the church, but I must admit to being a bit tired of the stress and the distance.

I left the ELCA because of its policy against ordaining gays and lesbians in committed relationships. I left because in 2005, after a sustained study process, the ELCA’s General Assembly voted against officially lifting this ban. Prior to this, I’d spent years fighting for change from within the ELCA. Now I was tired. My wife was tired. And the church where I served as a lay leader, where I helped to distribute communion, had become for me a battleground rather than a place for spiritual renewal.

The decision to leave was an anguished one. My extended family practically drips with Lutheran pastors. My best friend, a gay Lutheran, couldn’t even imagine leaving, because he loved the Lutheran liturgy and its theology of grace; because the Lutheran Church was the church of the mother he adored, the mother he’d lost too soon. He begged me to stay to continue the fight from within. In response, I wrote an open letter explaining why I felt compelled to leave, a letter that I took to calling “my manifesto.”

It was distributed widely enough to make it into the hands of my area bishop, who wrote a sympathetic response. It made the rounds at the UCC church I’d transferred my membership to, inspiring an invitation to deliver the sermon on Gay Pride Sunday. I must admit it was a powerful letter. And yet, while I wrote that letter and walked away, others carried on the fight. And now, four years later, I find myself observing the fruits of their labors.

I’ve been rereading my manifesto a lot over the last few days; hoping to find within those words some insight into what I should do, what I should feel, now that the landscape has changed so significantly.

In that letter, I described the ELCA’s position at the time as “not nearly as offensive” as the harsh and categorical condemnations of homosexuality coming out of some other Christian denominations; condemnations voiced without a hint of uncertainty, without any acknowledgment that this judgment might be mistaken. “For a time,” I wrote, “it seemed to me that it was enough that the ELCA’s stance was more nuanced than this, more fallibilistic.”

But it wasn’t enough. It wasn’t enough because the ELCA, despite acknowledging uncertainty and dissent, erred on the side of tradition rather than on the side of inclusion, making gays and lesbians into second-class citizens—invited to join the church but denied the right to pursue ordination (unless they submitted to a requirement of celibacy not imposed on straight clergy), and excluded from the only model of responsible sexuality that the church offers: the institution of marriage.

Because I have so many gay and lesbian friends and relatives, I knew what this marginalization felt like. In my manifesto, I described it in these terms:

Many feel like outsiders looking in a window at a feast they cannot join, like the little match girl in Hans Christian Anderson’s famous story. They feel cut off, and their sexuality is given no framework for its development and expression. Or, perhaps better, the only framework for understanding and expressing their sexuality that they are left with is the model offered by the secular world: media images that glorify objectification and reckless self-gratification, that say “do whatever feels good.”

And then I turned my attention to the justifications for these exclusionary practices, especially the scriptural ones. I still agree with what I wrote then, and I imagine (or perhaps only fantasize) that those words may still have some power now: the power to move those who are uncertain about the ELCA’s recent decisions, the power to help them to understand how and why the church could make such a move. These are the words I wrote:

Any sincere holistic reading of Scripture reveals a clear commitment to an ethic of love. As such, it seems utterly clear to me that we must reject any approach to Scripture that leads to the endorsement of teachings that marginalize some of God’s children, that contribute to suicidal depression in gay teens, that stifle compassion and inspire otherwise good people not to hear the anguished cry of their gay and lesbian neighbors. Traditional teachings about homosexuality do all of these things. If our approach to understanding Scripture and its authority leads to these teachings, then it violates the ethic of love, and hence is a profound violation of the spirit of Scripture itself.

Scripture calls for us to love our gay and lesbian neighbors, to treat their needs as if they were those of Christ Himself. In other words, Scripture calls us to look beyond Scripture, to God and to our neighbor. If we attend to our gay and lesbian neighbors, we will hear stories of how traditional Christian teachings on homosexuality have crushed their souls. We will hear stories of how, rather than coming to them as a joyous chorus proclaiming the good news of reconciliation and redemption, the Christian church comes to them as a force of oppression and pain, as a life-deadening power. We will hear stories whose implications are more than clear: teaching that homosexuality is always a sin is itself a sin, because it poisons the lives of our gay and lesbian neighbors.

We do not hear these stories. While our gay and lesbian neighbors are crying out to be heard, to be received as full members in the life of the church, we ignore them in favor of discussing and debating the significance of Romans 1:26-27. This is a tragedy… Any religion that, in the name of a “high” doctrine of Scripture, cares more for isolated sentences on a page than it does about the anguished cry of our neighbors is, to borrow Martin Luther King’s language, a spiritually moribund religion only waiting for the day to be buried.

These words still resonate with me, although today there are things I’d say a bit differently. I think I’d spend more talking about my gay best friend John who refused to leave the church that refused to accept him, and my gay cousin Jake who stood outside the ELCA assembly hall the first time efforts to change policies were shut down in favor of a study process; who nearly wept as he spoke about the church that had decided to study him rather than accept him. I’d emphasize the voice of God I heard in their witness, a revelation so potent that the doctrine of biblical inerrancy which once I’d flirted with just couldn’t be sustained. Here was the voice of God, speaking through my neighbor, telling me that Paul was wrong, that the Levitical authors were wrong.

But none of this explains why I made the choice I did, why I left while others like me stayed to fight. It isn’t until the closing paragraphs of my manifesto that this choice takes center stage and I discuss my reasons for leaving; reasons that included my spiritual weariness, my longing to worship in a place where the question of whether friends and loved ones could be fully welcomed for who they were wasn’t an issue. I talked about my son, then a toddler. Did I want him to grow up in a church where, should he discover in adolescence that he was gay (as my cousin Jake did), he’d be pushed to the margins, a second-class citizen? I concluded my letter with the following words:

The ironic truth is this: Were I gay, I would stay and fight for change. I would clamor at the gate for full inclusion. Were I gay, to leave the church would be to embrace the message of exclusion that current ELCA policies convey. And so, as a way to protest that message, I would refuse to leave. But because I am straight, the only way I can clamor at the gate in solidarity with my gay and lesbian loved ones is to deliberately step outside. The ELCA policies are discriminatory, but they discriminate in my favor. They do not exclude me because of who I am. And so, because I am straight, I must leave under my own power. To fight for change alongside my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, I must become an outsider with them.

It didn’t quite work out that way. I suppose what I discovered was similar in some ways to what Simone Weil—the extraordinary French philosopher and mystic—discovered when she tried to join in solidarity with the struggling industrial laborers in early 20th-century France: in her case, the grueling labor was a choice. And that made her experience on the factory floor fundamentally different from that of her coworkers.

And now, for four years, I’ve been part of a congregation where weddings are routinely performed for same-sex couples. When my wife was trying to explain social prejudice to the kids in her Sunday School class, she looked at one little girl who sat happily with the rest, and she said, “There are some places where she’d be treated differently, where other kids might not want to play with her, or their parents wouldn’t let them play with her, just because she has two mommies rather than a mommy and a daddy.” And the kids in her class laughed, because—of course—this seemed to them utterly absurd.

In the congregation where I am now, no one looks askance at the gay and lesbian couples who sit together in the pews alongside straight couples, and who are just as likely to hold hands. Here the question of gay and lesbian inclusion is a non-issue, and we can focus on fighting poverty and injustice rather than fighting about who gets to be a full member of the church.

Although the ELCA has made some historic changes, it will be a long time before Lutheran congregations around the country, especially in my part of it, start to look like that. There are those at my old Lutheran church who (I do not doubt) are preparing to leave. Others are in a state of anguish very similar to what I was feeling four years ago; wrestling with whether their conscience will let them stay in a church they love, a church that, in their view of things, has betrayed their faith.

But maybe, just maybe, that is why I should go back. The victory of last week’s votes may not be mine, but neither will be the sense of triumph that can only further distance those who struggle with these events or grieve them. I cannot tell them to stay, to do what I didn’t do, but I can empathize with their struggle. And perhaps such empathy can help to do the work that a change in policy cannot do. There are real human communities that must come to grips, sometimes grudgingly, with these changes. There is still work to be done. Perhaps I can be part of that work.

One thing is clear. Now, because of what the ELCA’s General Assembly did last week, I can go back. The question I cannot answer is whether it will feel like coming home.

eric.reitan@okstate.edu'

Eric Reitan, an award-winning scholar and writer, teaches philosophy at Oklahoma State University. His most recent book, Is God a Delusion? A Reply to Religion’s Cultured Despisers was named a Choice Outstanding Academic Title of 2009.