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Openly Gay Clergy Navigate Denominational Politics

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The Reverend Steven Protzman, an openly gay minister serving at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Iowa City.

CREDIT: Campus Progress / Shay O’Reilly

The first time Rev. Scott Anderson served as a Presbyterian pastor, he was living a double life. He kept his homosexuality, including a relationship with another man, secret from his congregation.

It was the 1980s, and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) did not allow gay men to be ordained. When some of his congregants found out about his romantic life, they threatened to blackmail him with the information; Anderson refused to cooperate, and was forced out of both the closet and the ministry.

“It was really the best and worst moment of my life,” the 56-year-old Anderson told Campus Progress. “The worst moment, because I had to set aside my calling to be a parish pastor. It was also the best moment because I was able to be honest about who I am with the people I most cared about.”

Twenty-one years later, Anderson is once again an ordained member of the clergy, but this time he serves as the first openly gay Presbyterian minister. The denomination voted earlier this year to allow individual presbyteries to set their own guidelines around ordination, including allowing them to ordain gays and lesbians.

Anderson was ordained in October.

“When I left the ministry,” he said, “I never thought the day would come in my lifetime when the Presbyterian Church would actually change its mind—or at least open the doors to allow gay clergy to serve.”

Changing Denominations — Or Not

After being ejected from the priesthood, Anderson went back to graduate school for a Master’s in public policy, but remained within the Presbyterian Church, working as the director of the California Council of Churches before moving to his current position as the Executive Director of the Wisconsin Council of Churches.

“For some irrational reason, I felt called be part of the church as it continues to work through these issues,” he said.

Not all gay people who seek ordination share the call to remain with more conservative denominations. As with LGBT lay congregants, gay ministers often try a number of faiths before finding one that aligns with their spiritual beliefs and accepts their identities.

Reverend Steven Protzman, a 53-year-old Unitarian Universalist minister in Iowa City, grew up Catholic but left the church because of its views on homosexuality. Later, he joined the Episcopal Church because he saw it as more accepting. Protzman soon realized he felt a call to the priesthood, and met with his bishop at the time.

“I said [to my bishop that] I wanted to be honest about things—‘I am an out gay man,’ ” Protzman told Campus Progress. “He said, ‘I can’t allow you to go through the process for your own sake, for the sake of the church, and because it’s not in line with our biblical teachings about homosexuality.’ ”

At the time, Protzman knew several gay Episcopalian priests—and the bishop admitted that he knew of them, too, but that they had to remain in the closet.

“I told him that seemed hypocritical,” Protzman said.

Shortly afterward, he left the Episcopal Church—not solely because of the bishop’s response, but as a result of theological studies that led him to reject Christianity. Instead, Protzman became a pagan, before a Jewish partner and a search for a mutually-agreeable church brought him into the Unitarian Universalist faith.

“I'd forgotten about [the ministry] to be honest,” Protzman said. “I let the idea go, thinking I'd serve the church in other ways … I always felt called to serve, and loved it.”

After a few years, he found his way back on to the path toward ordination.

All God’s Children Metropolitan Community Church pastor Kevin Downer shared a similar sense of rootless calling, uncomfortable in his home church but stricken with the desire for spiritual service. Following a period without faith, Downer found his way to the MCC, an LGBT-centered denomination.

Downer grew up in a small-town United Church of Christ congregation. While he felt called to the ministry, the pastors and congregation at his home church did not seem supportive enough for him to be both gay and a minister, despite the generally friendly UCC policies.

“[To the ministry,] I said, ‘No, not now.’ But in my heart what I meant was, ‘No, not ever,’ because I thought there was no way I could rationalize my sexuality and my spirituality,” Downer said.

Instead, he left the church and became a business consultant—and while it was a lucrative career, he still felt empty. After moving from Connecticut to Chicago, he found an advertisement for a service at the local Metropolitan Community Church.

“When I started worshiping with the MCC, slowly but surely I began to get more comfortable with a theology that embraces sexuality—with a god that's big enough to embrace gay people,” Downer said.

He became a deacon, and people began asking whether he had ever thought about the ministry. In 2006, after attending Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, he was ordained in the Metropolitan Community Church.

Choppy Progress toward Equality

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s decades-long struggle over gay ordination ended when the majority of presbyteries in the denomination voted to amend itsBook of Order earlier this year, changing a recent section that limits ordination to those who are in covenanted heterosexual relationships or choose lifelong celibacy. The newly revised section allows individual sessions and presbyteries to set their own guidelines regarding the ordination of partnered gay candidates.

Only two years ago, the majority of presbyteries voted against allowing the ordination of LGBT pastors. But now, with Anderson’s ordination, the church has joined Christian denominations including the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and the United Church of Christ (which led the charge in 1972) in no longer requiring gay and lesbian clergy to be celibate.

On the other hand, the Metropolitan Community Church was founded in 1968 by a defrocked gay minister and has been a predominately gay ministry ever since. Similarly, the Unitarian Universalist Association, on the other hand, has ordained openly gay ministers since the 1970s, and 5 percent of its clergy identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. The religion, which has Christian roots but is no longer considered within the Christian faith, is famously accepting, though Protzman said that someone in his home congregation had questioned his calling, asking how he would be able to minister to heterosexual couples.

Despite a general trend toward greater acceptance, the history of gay ordination is fraught with tension, including dramatic denominational splits. The most notorious of these came after the election of openly gay, non-celibate Bishop Gene Robinson in the Episcopal Church in 2003. The controversial selection was the final straw for some conservative Episcopal congregations, many of which definitively broke from the denomination to found the Anglican Church in North America in 2008.

According to the Huffington Post, conservative Presbyterians have not called for a similar large-scale exit from the PC(USA), although some churches have left as a result of the vote to ordain gay ministers—including the largest Presbyterian congregation in Sacramento, California.

“Let me make it clear that Fremont didn’t leave the PC(USA), they left us,” Fremont Presbyterian Church Senior Pastor Rev. Donald Baird said.

The Fremont Presbyterian Church voted instead to join the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, a much smaller denomination that—like the Presbyterian Church in America, the Southern Baptist Convention, and the United Methodist Church—does not allow the ordination of openly gay ministers.

Anderson suspects that many churches left even prior to the vote, suspecting that the ordination of LGBT clergy was inevitable.

“I don't want anyone to leave,” Anderson said. “I think our church is big enough theologically to contain a diverse set of viewpoints around this particular issue, and from my perspective there's no reason for anyone to leave, although I respect congregations that make that judgment call.”

Because of the allowance within the Book of Order for individual presbyteries to control ordination, not all 173 districts will allow the ordination of gay clergy—and some of these may not even recognize Anderson’s ordination.

“It's going to be messy for a while, because technically I'm ordained to serve the whole church and yet the reality is that I probably won't be welcomed in certain parts of the church,” he said.

While this intra-denominational disparity is unusual, inter-faith and ecumenical work means that gay ministers in LGBT-affirming congregations frequently have to work with those who may not accept their sexuality.

Downer said that he had never had his ordination or calling brought into question by those of other faiths, and had no problems working closely with people who believed that he was inherently sinful. “The things we work on are things that are broader than questions of sexuality,” he said.

Protzman has faced some criticism from ministers in other faiths, but said that he has had very productive discussions.

“I was able to talk about how Jesus called a variety of people to walk with him, to help him teach and preach and minister, and how he hung out with the outcasts of society.”

Between Two Identities

Gay clergy are particularly challenged to integrate their sexuality into their spiritual practices and theological understanding. While some ministers, like Protzman, are not compelled to reconcile their identities with Biblical verse, gay clergy in Christian denominations seek to approach their faith from a place of wholeness.

“[Being gay] has given me a more profound understanding that the role of the church is to help reintegrate the body… to help people as integrated authentic beings,” said Downer said, who views the mission of the Metropolitan Community Church as particularly “prophetic” because of its existence in the margins of society.

“Because of the dark nights and the long journey, having to figure out exactly who I am—and how do I live in a world where not everybody accepts me because of who I am—has opened me up and made me a lot more sensitive to people who are feeling hurt, abandoned by God, abandoned by family, abandoned by church, or just forgotten by society,” Downer continued. The mission he draws from the Bible: “God’s dream for us is to be just, to be loving, and to be humble, all simultaneously.”

 “Coming out is kind of a resurrection experience—at least it was for me, in claiming that the totality of my person is created in the image of God,” Anderson said. This notion of deliverance—of finding oneself, and holding true—recurs in the stories of many LGBT ministers.

Anderson has also seen his reconciliation with the church itself, or what he calls a “grief process,” as an important part of his spiritual growth.

“I think I'm predominately at the point of acceptance that the church is what it is, with all of its humanity, all of its frailty and all of its sinfulness,” he said.

Anderson, Protzman, and Downer agree that sin  can’t be applied to the orientation you’re born with though Anderson is quick to clarify that, according to his faith, everyone is a sinful person. (Unlike other gay ministers, Anderson also believes that God calls people, both gay and straight, into “lifelong covenantal relationships.”)

Despite the prevalent cultural idea that there is an irreconcilable divide between gay identity and religious identity, all three ministers told Campus Progress that they believe their identities are uniquely intertwined. 

For the increasing number of gay clergy who are able to be open about their sexuality, they can ask these questions rooted in their own integrity, affirmed by their faith as worthy of what they term “the call”: This specific service to humanity as children of God.

“Why does there have to be a space between [religion and sexuality]?” Protzman asked. “Religion is nothing more than asking the deepest questions of life, trying to understand what it means to be here, to be part of creation, and to be human.” 

Shay O'Reilly is a reporter with Campus Progress. Follow him on Twitter @shaygabriel.

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