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Gay Lutherans reflect on advances
by Chuck Colbert
2009-09-23

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Reaction has been swift and predictable to what happened in Minneapolis last month with more conservative church members feeling disgruntled, if not betrayed, and progressives bursting with joy, albeit measured and tempered.

But for at least one Chicago same-sex couple and two local pastors, the take-away message from the church-wide assembly is clear enough. "The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America ( ELCA ) has committed itself to being a church of inclusion," said Benjeman Nichols, referring to the ELCA's vote to lift a 20-year-old ban against ministers in same-gender relationships and to open doors for blessing committed same-gender relationships.

Better yet, "The church has moved beyond the tired old paradigm that God loves [ gay people ] despite our sins," Nichols explained. "Now we're seen as equal" insofar as "God created people the same way, gay or straight," and "the ELCA has committed itself to living out [ that principle ] in parish communities."

There were, in fact, two key votes during the Aug. 17-23 gathering. And one important resolution passed by a single vote when convention delegates approved a social statement, calling on ELCA congregations to "welcome, care for, and support same-gender couples." The statement required a two-thirds majority. Titled, "Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust," the social statement passed by a vote of 676-338, precisely the 66.67 percent needed for approval.

"The social statement now forms the basis for policy and advocacy on issues related to families and sexuality both for ministry and advocacy in the church and society," said Emily Eastwood, executive director for Lutherans Concerned/North America, speaking for Goodsoil, an Evangelical Lutheran LGBT advocacy group."

Indeed, passage of the social statement paved the way for Evangelical Lutherans to adopt another resolution, this one allowing people in "publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous same-gender relationships" to serve as official church ministers. The ministry resolution passed 559-451. Unlike the social statement, it only required a simple-vote majority for passage.

By its action at the Minneapolis convention, the 4.7 million-member Lutheran Church, with a primarily Midwest base, becomes the largest mainline Protestant denomination to throw down an official welcome mat to gay and lesbian clergy and laity.

Bishop Wayne. N. Miller of the Metropolitan Chicago Synod supported the gay-positive resolutions, voicing support for LGBT equality from the convention floor.

To a large extent, Chicagoland Lutherans have been ahead of their denomination in welcoming gay men and lesbians into the fold. And yet for Nichols and his life partner Brian Von Rueden, both members of Wrigleyville's Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, their denomination's shift toward gay equality hits close to home—spiritually—in more ways than one.

Their pastor, the Rev. Craig Mueller is a gay man with a significant other. Associate pastor, the Rev. Michelle L. Miller is a partnered lesbian with children. And even before the ELCA made it officially kosher to bless same-sex unions, Nichols and Von Rueden celebrated an Einsegnungsfeier, a German term, roughly translated into the English as "commitment ceremony."

A few days after Obama's big win last November—and celebration in Grant Park—with family and friends present from U. S. and Germany, pastor Mueller officiated at the Nichols-Von Rueden,"consecration ceremony," the literal translation of Einsegnungsfeier.

The couple's choice of venue in a Lutheran church and a German name for ceremony was intentional, Von Rueden said, explaining, "Benjeman's parents being a little more conservative; they wouldn't have tolerated the word wedding."

And yet both men agreed: "There is something about making a public commitment in front of your community that makes it meaningful," Nichols said, explaining, "Our families and friends' presence, their coming together," as we commit to "share our lives, helps us to [ live out that commitment. ] "

Both men are cradle Lutherans, although Nichols was raised in the more conservative traditions of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod. The couple met while students at Valparaiso University, which has historic ties to the Lutheran faith. Both fluent in German, the couple lived for several years in Germany.

Although Nichols converted to Roman Catholicism while in college, the couple finds common ground at Holy Trinity, which Von Rueden said, "blends the intellectual and liturgical tradition of the church with Catholic theology and other faith principles of the Lutheran Church." He added, "There's a real outreach of trying to reach people where they are along their faith journey." Besides, Von Rueden said, "It's okay to ask questions. Craig encourages them."

For two decades Holy Trinity has been a reconciling faith community, reaching out to gay men and lesbians, making it clear that all are welcome and that inclusion embraces all LGBT faithful. Located about half a mile from Chicago's most visible gay enclave, Boystown, Holy Trinity is now about 25 percent gay, said Mueller, with the congregation's membership at about 350 people. More recently, Holy Trinity has been welcoming non-gays. "Our claim to fame," he explained, "is we've become more diverse by welcoming straight people." Mueller has served as Holy Trinity pastor for 10 years.

Neither Mueller, Von Rueden nor Nichols attended church-wide assembly. But all three men watched proceedings live from the ELCA's Web site. "It was a very personal and emotional discussion" to view, said Von Rueden, who e-mailed Nichols back and forth from work throughout deliberations on the resolutions. "I started crying at my desk," he said, "when the final vote on the clergy policy passed," adding, "It was just a relief for us and for them" because "somewhere down the line no one could make a big stink and oust them. That would be a real tragedy for us personally and for them. Our congregation is on the cutting edge of where the church should be on social justice."

Although not a voting member, Associate Pastor Rev. Michelle L. Miller was in Minneapolis for the historic vote. Lifting the ban on out and partnered clergy "is most helpful to those of us who are gay and lesbian because we are able to be out now," she said. Of course, "There have always been gay men and lesbians serving in the church, but we had to be so quite about it before." Miller went to say that being circumspect about her lesbian identity and her identity as a pastor resulted in the two never quite merging. "Now they can," she said. "I can say [ to Lutherans ] I am a pastor and a good pastor you've always appreciated that and my ministry. I also happened to be gay. Those two images are going to come closer together for people."

Both Mueller and Miller voiced joy and happiness over the gay-positive outcomes at the church-wide assembly. Nonetheless, the pair of ministers at Holy Trinity also acknowledged the pain, sorrow and fear among fellow Lutherans who voted in opposition.

Sure enough, Aug. 23 was" a huge day for us," Mueller said, pointing to a "standing ovation," But "We didn't just say, 'Yeeha, yeah—we're gay." Rather Mueller's sermon offered this assessment: "Maybe the Holy Spirit isn't revealed so much in the rightness of the position we hold on controversial issues, but in the ways we honor, respect and forgive those who disagree with us—who have even hurt us greatly."


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