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Lutheran bishop makes pro-gay history
by Chuck Colbert

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For the first time ever, a presiding Lutheran bishop spoke before a pro-LGBT faith group, which also serves a denominational advocacy organization.

The historic first came on July 7, when Bishop Mark S. Hanson of the Evangelical Church In America (ELCA) delivered the keynote address at Luther Place Memorial Church in Washington, D.C., during a kickoff event for a gathering of ReconcilingWorks that spanned several days.

ReconcilingWorks, formerly Concerned Lutherans, drew about 200 people to its biennial assembly, held this year in the nation's capital July 7-10.

The assembly's calendar of events included liturgical celebrations, workshops, Bible studies and yet another first—a lobbying day on Capitol Hill "to carry the group's witness for LGBT people to their individual U.S. representatives and senators," according to a press release.

Hanson's keynote touched upon a range of intersectional topics such as immigration, ministry to the poor and society's marginalized populations, and LGBT inclusion within the 4.2 million-member ELCA and beyond. During the bishop's nearly hour-long talk, he told the story of a gay college student who told Hanson that his church saved his life.

Based in Chicago, Hanson has served as presiding bishop since 2001. In 2007 he was elected to a second six-year term. A native of Minneapolis, Hanson's installation as bishop took place at Chicago's Rockefeller Chapel in October 2001.

Right after the Hanson concluded his speech, the Rev. Christopher Berry, co-presider of ReconcilingWorks, spoke about the importance of the keynote.

"He very prophetically talked about reconciliation and how it is the work of the people of God," said Berry in a phone interview.

Berry was referring to a bringing together process of the ELCA since the mainline Protestant denomination's 2009 decision allowing for the ordination of openly gay clergy and the blessing of same-gender couples, going so far as to marry them in states that issue civil-marriage licenses to gay couples.

Berry—who serves as in a Lutheran campus ministry at Western Washington University, based in Bellingham, Wash.—also said implementation of the changes is "going very well" in some synods and "very slow" in others.

"We do have more clergy being added to [church] rosters," he added. "At the same time, there are same-gender married clergy in some synods."

Synods are governing districts or jurisdictions of the ELCA.

Berry praised Hanson for his advocacy and leadership. ReconcilingWorks consulted with the bishop at length, Berry said, "throughout all the strife and the work to bring about full inclusion."

Implementation of full LGBT Lutheran equality is underway throughout the church, said Berry, albeit "not as fast as we'd like, but at a good pace."

The presiding bishop's keynote comes just a month after the name change from Concerned Lutherans to ReconcilingWorks.

Why the change? "When people heard 'Concerned Lutherans,'" Berry explained. "They thought about worried Lutherans."

This is not happening any more. "Reconciliation is a process that happens once and for all," he said. "ReconcilingWorks is a good name," one "with double entendres."

With its name change, ReconcilingWorks is drawing upon biblical references to St. Paul in his epistles (letters) warning not to let disagreements foster permanent separation among the faithful one from another.

Coincidently, ReconcilingWorks is based in St. Paul, Minn.

Hanson's keynote also comes at the same time 25 same-sex couples have brought suit in Illinois challenging the state's 16-year ban on gay marriage, a law limiting wedlock to a man and a woman.

Moreover, last month the Metropolitan Chicago Synod called for same-sex civil marriage during its annual assembly, held in Tinley Park June 1-2.

Better yet, the vote for marriage equality was decidedly lopsided, with more than 90 percent of 350 people on hand favoring it.

The local synod encompasses 202 congregations, with nearly 98,000 members, and is located in Chicago and the surrounding area.

The synod assembly also urged the Illinois Legislature and the governor to "extend the protections and dignity of marriage to all persons and to protect the freedom of religion for all faith communities and religious organizations."

Finally, the Chicago assembly urged the local bishop, the Rev. Wayne Miller, to play an active role in making the synod's position known throughout the state—to the Legislature, governor, congregations of the synod, and the public at large.

With its action, Metropolitan Chicago joins synods in Maryland; Minnesota; Washington, D.C.; and Washington state in advocating equal marriage rights.

Out West, Lutheran advocacy is at play as Washington state, too, where voters face a same-sex marriage referendum that will decide the fate a new same-sex civil-marriage law.

There, the Rev. William Christopher Boerger, bishop of the Northwest Washington Lutheran Synod, advocates marriage equality. Boerger even testified before the state House and Senate in advance of the Legislature's passing—and the governor's signing—of a bill into law.

Having hired a part-time staffer, ReconcilingWorks, said Berry, is on the ground "working diligently" with the local bishop to preserve equal-marriage rights at the ballot box.

©Copyright. Chuck Colbert. All rights reserved.

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