Presbyterian Church to ordain first openly gay minister
For decades, the Rev. Mark Achtemeier believed gays and lesbians were unfit to serve as leaders in the Presbyterian Church.
He believed homosexuality to be a kind of affliction, a destructive addiction that ran counter to Scripture. In the 1990s he helped craft restrictions to keep gay and lesbian candidates from joining the Presbyterian clergy.
But on Saturday, Achtemeier will deliver a sermon at the ordination of his friend Scott Anderson, who will become the first openly gay minister in the church after the very restrictions Achtemeier once advocated were abolished.
In May, the Presbyterian Church USA voted to amend its constitution to allow gays and lesbians to serve as ministers and lay leaders. With the move, the 2.3-million-member church became the fourth mainline Protestant denomination to allow gay ordination, following the Episcopal and Evangelical Lutheran churches and the United Church of Christ.
For Anderson, the ceremony in Madison, Wis., will mark his return to a ministry he was forced to abandon decades ago because of his sexuality. For Achtemeier, the ceremony will mark the latest step in a journey of faith.
As Anderson was studying at Princeton Theological Seminary in the 1980s, he hid his sexuality to continue his quest to become a minister. “My sense of call was so strong that I felt I wanted to pursue that and keep the rest of this quiet,” he said.
In 1990, while working as parish minister at Bethany Presbyterian Church in south Sacramento, Anderson became embroiled in a dispute with a couple after he declined to use his position as minister to help raise money for a cause they were advancing. The couple began fishing for information to use against him and learned he was gay.
If Anderson didn’t help them, they threatened, they would out him.
Anderson instead chose to tell the congregation himself and stepped down as minister. He was met, he said, with a standing ovation.
“It was an empowering, liberating moment,” he recalled. “But there was also the sadness and grief to leave the work I loved so much.”
But Anderson remained active in the church and in 2001 was placed on a task force charged with guiding the church through a tumultuous period of debate over gay clergy.
Also on the task force was Achtemeier, a staunch supporter of excluding gays and lesbians from church leadership. “I was deeply informed by very traditional readings of Scripture,” he said.
They slowly developed a friendship. Achtemeier realized that Anderson, despite having reason to be bitter, showed no hostility toward the church. Achtemeier saw in him a love for Christ, the church and Scripture that was unwavering.
“I started picking up that Scott was a better Christian than I was,” Achtemeier said. “That collided with the prejudices I had before.”
At the time, the church’s constitution required candidates seeking ordination to be living “in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness.”
“I started to see some of the human cost that this kind of teaching was producing,” Achtemeier said.
In 2006, the church instituted a “scruple” system that allowed gay and lesbian candidates to express disagreements with church doctrine during the ordination process. It essentially allowed for the possibility of an exception to the ban by leaving it up to the regional church bodies to decide whether a candidate should be ordained.
Under that system, Anderson set out to rejoin the ministry. By 2010, he had again gone through the ordination process in Wisconsin. His ordination was approved, but was then challenged by a neighboring church.
As his case made its way through church court, a six-month nationwide vote on whether to change the church constitution was underway. This May it passed.
The change required officials to examine only “each candidate’s calling, gifts, preparation, and suitability for the responsibilities of office,” essentially lifting the ban on gay clergy.
“My case was declared moot,” Anderson said, with a laugh.
But the amendment gives enough leeway that more conservative presbyteries can still deny ordination to candidates based on their sexuality.
Carmen Fowler, president of the Presbyterian Lay Committee, a conservative organization that opposes the inclusion of gays and lesbians in the clergy, left the ministry the day the constitution was changed, as an “act of conscience.”
“For many of us, that’s a departure of the way we understand the scripture,” Fowler said of the change. “Although it is a joyful day for Scott, it’s a sad day for many in the Presbyterian Church.”
The debate is ongoing, but as the church has done for centuries, it will evolve, said Achtemeier, a minister in Dubuque, Iowa.
“It has happened through the history of the church that committed Christians go to their Bible and come back hearing different things from it,” he said. “My hope is that the faith we all share in Christ is strong enough to hold us together as we debate with one another and wait till God sorts out these disagreements.”
On hand for the ordination in Madison will be Ian MacAllister, a man Anderson met only months after leaving the ministry. They have been in a committed relationship since.
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