In a rare and perhaps unprecedented event, three Lutheran seminarians who publicly declared their homosexuality have sought and have been given certification for the ministry, church officials said Tuesday.
The three--all students at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in Berkeley--were certified for call and ordination to the ministry in separate actions by their respective church authorities shortly before the official creation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America on Jan. 1, 1988. All will graduate in May.
While the issue of homosexuals in the ministry has sharply divided other denominations and is expected to be the source of bitter debate when the United Methodist Church meets in General Conference in April, Lutheran officials appear to be taking the situation in stride.
"All three are highly gifted," said the Rev. Michael Cooper-White, an assistant to Bishop Lyle Miller of the Northern California-Northern Nevada Synod. "We expect to give them the same kind of support (in finding a call) as other" graduating seminarians.
Two of the seminarians are Californians--Jeff Johnson of Lancaster and James Lancaster of Westminster--and were members of the Lutheran Church in America before that denomination was merged into the ELCA. The third seminarian, Joel Workin of Walcott, N.D., was a member of the American Lutheran Church, also a partner in the merger that formed the ELCA.
All three described themselves as "openly gay" and portrayed themselves as such when presenting themselves for certification, the first step toward ordination in Lutheranism.
Under Lutheran rules, after certification and graduation from seminary, the three must be "called"--or offered a job--by a local congregation. Ordination is accomplished when called by a local congregation.
Carolyn Lewis, a spokeswoman for the ELCA, headquartered in Chicago, said the new church is still studying the situation and does not have any official statement on the issue.
"Generally, ordination is up to the bishops in the region and the congregation that calls," she said.
She said the past policies of the LCA and the ALC are that a "homosexual orientation" is not a reason not to ordain someone, but both the previous bodies opposed ordination for "practicing" homosexuals.
Cooper-White said the bishop of the Northern California region met with the faculty of the Berkeley seminary after the certification process and "in the bishop's judgment, the seminary faculty acted consistently with the church's statement in that the students were informed that being a practicing homosexual would bar them from ordination."
He said the bishops and faculty members "reaffirmed the current statements and practices of the Lutheran church that to be admittedly homosexual in orientation does not in and of itself preclude ordination."