Ecclesiastical disobedience

A Sacramento Lutheran church celebrates its 50th anniversary and continues its legacy of defying the status quo

Debates within the hierarchy of the Lutheran Church may determine the fate of pastors like Robyn Hartwig.

Debates within the hierarchy of the Lutheran Church may determine the fate of pastors like Robyn Hartwig.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Inside the Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer’s office is a poster of six pastors who served there. In one picture, there is the Rev. Donald Ranstrom, sternly gazing at the camera. Across the street from the church is the Carmichael border, where, in 1964, he preached for the support of a fair-housing initiative that dissolved the “red line” preventing ethnic minorities from buying houses in that suburb. Below Ranstrom is a photo of the Rev. Noreen Meginness in the full minister’s regalia of a white silk robe and golden sash. She was the first female Lutheran pastor in Sacramento, where, in 1978, several TV news cameras filmed her first service at the church. Next to her picture is one of the Rev. Todd VanLaningham, who opened his congregation to homosexual, bisexual and transgender membership in 1989 by connecting the church with Reconciling In Christ, a Lutheran gay-rights organization that is still unwelcome in many Lutheran churches today.

In her sermon for the church’s 50th anniversary service on November 23, the current pastor, the Rev. Robyn Hartwig, compared the church’s spirit to the apostle John’s description of Pontius Pilate’s first meeting with Jesus Christ. She noted Pilate’s “anxious pacing” between Jesus’ headquarters and the local chief priests outside, when he had a hunch there was something special about the stranger. “'Anxious pacing’ is the kind of pacing that comes from knowing the truth somewhere deep down inside but being afraid to act upon it,” Hartwig explained. She concluded, “Over 50 years of ministry, this congregation has gone through intense pacing and searching for the deeper truth.”

Hartwig herself has endured such pacing as an openly lesbian pastor. But like many other homosexual Lutheran clergy, she is unafraid to uphold a deep truth. Hartwig is proud of her relationship with another woman, even though it presently violates the policies of the national Lutheran organization in which her church holds membership.

Many American Lutherans are deciding whether romantically committed gay pastors like Hartwig should be ordained into their faith. She is writing another chapter in her church’s tradition of fighting for tolerance and social justice, by joining a special effort to return expelled gay and bisexual pastors to the ministry. Though there is great opposition to clergy like her, Hartwig remains optimistic that the love of God and her congregation will protect her.

During a late-night interview, the 36-year-old often punctuated her statements with exclamation points, immediately jumping out of her chair to retrieve literature whenever needed. Yet, Hartwig admitted her reluctance to speak with a reporter. “I was hesitant because my sexuality is just one aspect of me,” she said. Yet, she emphasized that many of those who enter her church are homosexuals, disabled people or other people who “felt left out of their churches.” Her congregation currently has an average of 65 members and is slowly growing. The pastor later recalled the story of how, during the 16th century, Lutheran founder Martin Luther felt that he could never obtain God’s forgiveness for his sins in the Roman Catholic Church, until he reinterpreted the Bible and found that he was under a God of “grace and salvation, not vengeance and wrath.”

Hartwig is still marveling about being ordained as a Lutheran pastor. The native Iowan found her spiritual calling when she taught at a Bakersfield public high school. Her students asked questions that went beyond the classroom. “Some of them asked me, ‘What is the point of my existence?'… and some even asked me for advice on issues like getting an abortion or dealing with gangs,” she recalled. After answering such questions so many times, she decided to become a Lutheran pastor, spending four years at Berkeley’s Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary and completing two years’ worth of internships at various churches. Before her 1997 graduation, she entered an intense round of interviews with the seminary staff. There, she came out of the closet and also declared her opposition to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) policy that prevents gay clergy from having same-sex relationships. During her seminary internship the previous year, she had been too afraid to speak up. “I could not testify to the truth of God’s presence in my life while I was living a lie,” she recalled in her anniversary sermon.

Nonetheless, Hartwig was still approved to receive her master’s degree in divinity by the review panel. She mentioned that being single also might have made the difference. The new pastor received a call from the ELCA to serve the Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer in late 1998. Afterward, Hartwig said, “God led me to a partner.”

Because Hartwig is committed to a lesbian relationship, the jury is still out about her longevity as a pastor. Traditional Christian faiths long have held that homosexuality is a sin against God, citing passages like, “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination,” from Leviticus 18:22. In 1989, the ELCA voted at a Churchwide Assembly to allow homosexuals to be ordained in ELCA congregations, with one exception: “Practicing homosexuals are excluded from the ordained ministry,” according to an ELCA record. However, opinions about homosexuality still vary from congregation to congregation within the ELCA.

The Chicago-based ELCA is the nation’s largest Lutheran organization, claiming roughly 5 million members in 10,721 congregations as of last year. ELCA membership entails a formal Lutheran ordination for pastors, employment connections with congregations in need of ministry, and a voting seat during the group’s biennial Churchwide Assembly meetings. In 2001, the ELCA decided to create a 14-member task force to study homosexuality for the “Studies on Sexuality” project, which will decide whether to recommend blessing gay marriage and allowing romantically active homosexuals, bisexuals and transgenders to be ordained in ELCA congregations. At the 2005 Churchwide Assembly in Orlando, Fla., there will be a vote to approve or disapprove amendments to change the ELCA’s official policy on homosexuality.

It would take one bishop and 10 congregation members to file charges against Hartwig to suspend her from the ELCA. “After three years and no call from the ELCA, you just drop off,” she said. In 1990, three pastors from two San Francisco congregations were expelled from the ELCA for having same-gender relationships. Eleven years later, the ELCA filed sanctions against St. Paul-Reformation Lutheran Church in St. Paul, Minn., for accepting a ministry from the Rev. Anita Hill, a lesbian with a partner, which prevented the congregation from electing any more leaders to its regional chapter, or “synod.” Last January, the St. Paul Area Synod’s bishop, Peter Rogness, lifted the sanctions, arguing that such violations of the ELCA constitution “may, in the long run, be contributing to the life of the church in ways more constructive than destructive.”

In response to such persecution, the Extraordinary Candidacy Project (ECP) was created to provide employment for gay pastors expelled from the ELCA and for pastors who have same-gender relationships. Hartwig is an ECP member. She serves on the Bay Area candidacy panel to determine whether a candidate qualifies to become a pastor and, if so, to find them welcoming congregations. “It is ‘ecclesiastical disobedience,'” Hartwig said with a chuckle. Her group has employed more than 22 pastors so far. Although the ECP is encouraging the violation of ELCA policy, the ELCA will hold no official opinion of the ECP until the 2005 vote is cast, according to ELCA spokesman Frank Imhoff.

In the meantime, both the ECP and Lutherans Concerned (LC), a 29-year-old gay-rights organization, are encouraging gay pastors and congregation members to aid the ELCA studies, in hope of getting on the ELCA’s good side. Last February, two ECP and LC members met with the task force to describe their experiences, which yielded “positive results,” according to LC spokeswoman Emily Eastwood. Retired pastor Ranstrom argued that the ELCA soon will adapt to the broadening tolerance of gays in mainstream culture. “I think that they’ll have the good sense that the direction of the [Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer] will be the direction that the ELCA will also go,” he said in a phone interview, “although there’ll be a great deal of resistance to it.”

Though the ELCA claims to be liberal on gay rights, the conservative Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod feels otherwise. In its pamphlet “What About Homosexuality?” that synod’s former president, A.L. Barry, wrote that homosexuality is “intrinsically sinful,” yet he still offered gays the same message as he would to any non-Christian, “Repent and believe the Gospel!” He cited biblical passages like, “The law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners … immoral persons, sodomites,” from 1 Timothy 1:9-10, interpreted as condemning homosexuality. He answered the gay-rights movement’s influence by reiterating, “The church must resist these attitudes with the truth of God’s word,” and listed the phone number of the Keys Ministry, a Minnesota-based rehab group that aims to “liberate [people] from the sin of homosexuality.”

In contrast, LC members argued on their Web site that there are “comments by Jesus on the sins of [damned city] Sodom, but nowhere does he connect it with homosexuality.” Such a conflict between biblical interpretations may become more intense within the ELCA next December, when its Studies on Sexuality task force is expected to issue recommendations in regard to homosexual Lutherans. As Luther himself put it in his 1534 translation of Psalms, “The human heart is like a ship on a stormy sea driven about by winds blowing from all four corners of heaven.”

As for the worst-case scenario, in which Hartwig and her congregation are expelled from the ELCA for accepting her relationship with a woman, Hartwig believes her church would continue its business. Yet, “it would be extremely painful to have everything in your life and ministry lost because of who you love,” she said. However, Hartwig is not too worried about that prospect.

“God’s grace has already won out. … God is bigger than this (controversy)," she remarked. "And there is so much strength to gain from seeing his grace in other people’s lives. If I get a kernel of that, it’s enough to be thankful."