Lutherans to install
by Chuck Colbert
In yet another indication of American Christianity's increasing hospitality to LGBTs among the faithful, a southern California Lutheran synod has elected an openly gay pastor to serve as its bishop.
The Reverend Dr. R. Guy Erwin's selection earlier this year is indeed historic for the four-million member Evangelical Lutheran Church of America on three scores. He is openly gay, partnered, and Native American – a member of Osage Tribe.
Erwin, 55, will be formally welcomed next week in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, when ELCA's Churchwide Assembly meets August 12-17.
During a recent telephone interview, Erwin spoke about his election and of its significance.
"It reflects the maturing of the acceptance of gay and lesbian people in mainstream Christianity," he said. "It also reflects the growing comfort not only of the church, but also that society has with this form of difference.
"In some ways [we've] been talking about this for a long time and [my selection] is just the fruition of this long period of preparation that a lot of churches have gone through to take this step," said Erwin.
The Southwest California Synod elected Erwin on May 31 to a six-year term. The synod, or regional church governing body, includes the counties of Kern, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, San Louis Obispo, and Ventura.
On balance the synod is "progressive," said the bishop-elect, who will be installed September 21. And yet, "I was elected not because I was gay, but because they knew me well and trusted me," he said. "My being gay was not a problem, at least for most."
Oddly enough, for more than two decades Erwin could not officially serve as pastor in the ELCA. His ordination is only two years old, coming a couple of years after Evangelical Lutheran's Churchwide Assembly lifted a 20-year ban on ministers in same-gender relationships.
Churchwide Assembly is the highest legislative body of the Evangelical Lutherans, consisting of nearly 70 bishops and about 1,000 other ELCA members. Among the things being considered at this gathering is holding these assemblies every three years rather than every two years.
It was during the historic 2009 Churchwide Assembly in Minneapolis when voting members approved a social statement, calling on ELCA congregations to "welcome, care for, and support same-gender couples." The statement, titled "Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust," required a two-thirds majority of the convention delegates and passed by a vote of 676-338, precisely the 66.67 percent needed for approval.
More important, passage of the social statement paved the way for Evangelical Lutherans to adopt a resolution allowing people in "publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous same-gender relationships" to serve as official church ministers. The ministry resolution passed handily by a vote of 559-451. Unlike the social statement, it only required a simple-majority vote.
By its action at the Minneapolis convention, the Lutheran Church, with a primarily Midwest base, became the largest mainline Protestant denomination to throw down an official welcome mat to gay and lesbian clergy in a committed relationship. While LGBT laity had long been officially welcome; ministers, on the other hand, were – if they remained celibate.
Erwin and his life partner, Rob Flynn, attended the 2009 church gathering. Erwin was a voting delegate, and Flynn was an observer.
Together for nearly 20 years, Erwin and Flynn are registered domestic partners under California law. The couple met while in graduate school at Yale University. They plan to marry.
Until the end of July, Erwin served as interim pastor of Faith Lutheran Church in Canoga Park, California. Erwin is the Gerhard and Olga J. Belgum Professor of Lutheran confessional theology; a professor of religion and history; and director of the Segerhammar Center for Faith and Culture at California Lutheran University.
"What happened in Minneapolis," Erwin explained, "were two kinds of permissions in the church, one to ordain qualified gay and lesbian partnered people as clergy. The other allowed congregations to explore the possibility of blessing same-sex unions in jurisdictions where they were legal.
"Both of those resolutions moved along in a quiet way," he added, readily acknowledging, "pushback from more conservative elements of the church."
In fact, some 600 congregations out of 10,000 across the ELCA have left for more conservative churches, according to CNN reporting.
Nonetheless, "There has been steady progress forward without much notice, ordinations started to happen, ones already in the works. Those pastors who had been removed from the roster simply because they were gay or lesbian have been given the opportunity to be restored to it," said Erwin. "They have to ask to be restored, and there can't have been some other reason they were removed."
On balance, "There has been a quiet period of building and repairing," he added. "My election is the culmination that if it had not been me, it would have been someone else. I predict within my six-year term, there may well be someone else elected elsewhere in the church."
Statement on same-sex marriage in CA
In 2009 only four states allowed same-sex couples to marry, including Connecticut, Massachusetts, Iowa, and Vermont. By August 2013, that number increased to 13, along with the District of Columbia.
Of course, same-sex marriage resumed in California earlier this summer shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Hollingsworth v. Perry.
Accordingly, all three California Evangelical Lutheran bishops and the bishop-elect issued a joint statement on July 12 offering guidelines for both congregations and pastors.
"We believe where authorized by state law, ordained ministers in ELCA congregations have the authority to offer same-gender marriage ceremonies, so long as there has been consultation and endorsement of this act by congregational leadership," the statement read.
No official Evangelical Lutheran policy determines or defines how the denomination's pastors officiate over marriages. "The decisions of how to recognize, support, and hold publicly accountable same-gender relationships is entrusted to pastors and the congregations they serve," the bishops wrote.
Because the ELCA has no rite or liturgy for blessing unions or marriages of same-gender couples, the bishops added, "Celebrations of such relationships can be drawn from other Christian denominations and advocacy ministries, emphasizing the lifelong, monogamous intentions, which are part of the 2009 decisions of this church with regard to any marriage, whether of the opposite gender or of the same gender."
By no means, said Erwin, "should it be taken for granted that every congregation or pastor will marry same-gender couples. Some congregations will want to do it, but pastors will be reluctant. More likely, it will be the other way around."
Erwin is scheduled to preach on August 14 at a ReconcilingWorks worship service. ReconcilingWorks is an ECLA advocacy organization for LGBT Lutherans.
At the Pittsburgh liturgy, he said, the message will be about "new wine in old wine skins. I will talk about a stretching period for all of us, trying to keep the seams from bursting."
Asked about his message to the faithful upon installation next month, the bishop-elect said, "Just as the church is for everybody, so am I. To those who find [my election] confusing or alarming, I love them, too. It should not be considered a defeat or something that diminishes them. This lifts up the love of God for everybody."
"Having said that," Erwin continued, "Christianity is becoming more authentically what it is meant to be. We are entering into a great phase with a message of love and hope for everyone. My hope is that we will be an open church in which everyone can feel safe and welcome."