A Lutheran congregation, defying denominational rules, has voted to call two lesbian seminary graduates as assistant pastors without requiring them to remain celibate, parish officials said Monday.
The two women--Ruth Frost and Phyllis Zillhart--will be part of a pastoral team leading the newly organized Lutheran Lesbian and Gay Ministry in the San Francisco area.
Under terms of the call voted by the congregation, the two women will not be required to swear to remain celibate, thus violating denominational guidelines.
A third member of the team, seminary graduate Jeff Johnson, a homosexual, is under consideration for a call by a second Bay Area congregation.
The call to the two women sets up a direct confrontation with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the 5.3-million-member parent denomination of First Trinity, which voted Sunday to call Frost and Zillhart.
A call to Johnson is now under consideration by First United Lutheran Church, also of San Francisco.
Johnson is already working for the newly established gay ministry.
The decision of First Trinity to call the two lesbians, graduates of Northwestern Theological Seminary in St. Paul, Minn., raises a series of theological questions in the recently formed ELCA over the nature of ministry, the role of local congregations in the call process as well as the nature and meaning of human sexuality. It could lead to the parish's expulsion from the denomination.
Under rules adopted by the ELCA--a 1988 merger of three other Lutheran bodies with sharply different procedures for calling pastors--ordination is dependent on certification by the national church or a regional body, the synod.
In addition, guidelines adopted by the national church after Johnson and two other gay seminarians openly announced their homosexuality required that all candidates for ordination promise to be forever celibate unless they were married.
"We disagree strongly with our church body in these guidelines and believe this is an issue of justice," said the Rev. James DeLange, pastor of St. Francis.
"The long ministry of this congregation with gay and lesbian people and biblical scholarship over the last 20 years inform us that neither homosexuality nor its expression in commited relationships is wrong," he said.
"In fact, in our congregation and in our city we have witnessed many same-gender relationships of love and commitment that are as life-enhancing as are good marriages."
DeLange said his congregation has met with Frost and Zillhart and decided their 5-year-old "love commitment is as life-enhancing as our marriages."
Bishop Lyle Miller, head of the Sierra Pacific Synod of the ELCA, which oversees the Bay Area, has said he approves of the new ministry being established by Johnson, Zillhart and Frost but cannot endorse the call and ordination.