More than 80 homosexual Lutheran pastors challenged their denomination's celibacy policy this week by "outing" themselves at a denominational meeting in Chicago.
Volunteers passed out booklets on two successive mornings listing the names and churches in which these ministers serve. The 4.8-million-member Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), America's largest Lutheran denomination, requires single clergy to refrain from sexual activity.
Several of the signatories are open about having homosexual lovers.
"When I met Darin Easler at a church meeting, it was a blessed surprise," the Rev. Bradley Schmeling, a pastor from Atlanta, wrote in "A Place Within My Walls," a booklet of devotional essays alternated with photos of various seminarians or clergy with their partners. "He is a gift, best friend, confidant, partner, and spouse."
"There comes a time when silence is no longer faithful," wrote Union Theological Seminary professor Barbara Lundblad, shown arm in arm with her lover, Nicole Johnson.
Meeting at Chicago's Navy Pier Festival Hall, 1,071 ELCA delegates are slated to vote today on a resolution submitted by 21 synods (districts) asking the church to change its policy. They also may defer a decision on the matter until a church-appointed sexuality task force issues a report in 2009.
"Obviously we don't want [a deferral] to happen," said Phil Soucy, spokesman for the pro-homosexual advocacy group Lutherans Concerned and a member of Hope Lutheran Church in Annandale. "We don't want this forwarded to a task force that will do something in two years."
Thus, the throwing down of the gauntlet by the 82 homosexual Lutheran ministers listed in the "Walls" booklet. That plus a second publication, "Ministry Rooted in Gospel," which lists ministries and churches supportive of homosexual clergy, were distributed to delegates as they boarded their buses for the convention site.
Most of the clergy listed are from the Midwest; the only local pastor is the Rev. Phillip Gaines, pastor of Georgetown Lutheran Church in the District and the campus Lutheran minister at Georgetown University.
"Many people who are called to ministry, as I am, unfortunately must choose between serving God and staying with the one they love," said Mr. Gaines, who has a male partner of 25 years. "I do not feel that is fair. Straight people who are married don't have to make that choice, and I shouldn't have had to make that choice either."
He had to promise to be celibate in order for the church to ordain him in 1996, he said, adding that he has kept his vow. Mr. Soucy said Mr. Gaines' celibacy would be "the exception" among the clergy who "came out" this week.
In the past, homosexual clergy simply removed their names from the roster when their bishop asked, Mr. Soucy said. That changed last August when Mr. Schmeling refused to do so after he was defrocked. Although a church disciplinary committee removed his name a month ago, he is still on staff at St. John's Lutheran.
"They are not challenging the church," Mr. Soucy said. "These are dedicated pastors spending their lives in service to the mission of the church and the Gospel. They are saying, 'I will not be silent anymore. But I understand the potential for consequences.' "