by Neil Ellis Orts
In the summer of 2009, both the General Convention of the Episcopal Church and the Churchwide Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America made historic changes in their polity. In both cases, possible roles and participation in these denominations expanded for LGBT people.
Of course, these decisions have been controversial. For Lutherans, some congregations have left the ELCA. Other congregations are withholding money from the church-wide organization in protest. The Episcopalians find themselves in conflict with the worldwide Anglican Communion as well as with conservatives within their own congregations.
One year later, we decided to check in on the mood of both denominations at the local level. Speaking to the Rev. Lisa Hunt, rector of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Montrose, and the Rev. Michael Rinehart, bishop of the Gulf Coast Synod of the ELCA, we find signs of hope for Episcopal and Lutheran gays in the Houston area.
While the Episcopal Diocese of Texas is in no danger of having any openly gay bishops anytime soon (although the General Convention allowed for that possibility), there are groups of Episcopalians in our state who are not content to stand by as others develop the rites for same-sex marriage. This development will not be speedy—there is a lengthy process for approving new rites— but members of Integrity, the Episcopal organization that works for LGBT inclusion in church life, have organized a two-day conference on October 1 and 2 at Christ Church Cathedral in downtown Houston. “Our conviction is that we don’t have to wait for the diocese to take leadership,” Hunt explains. “We are the diocese, and we very much want to be part of the process of the development.”
The other hopeful note for Episcopalians is that they are coming together to talk more than before. At their last diocesan council, they adopted a “statement of unity,” drafted by a range of both conservative and progressive Episcopal leaders. “We were able to get language together that said we’re all here, and this is part of the richness of the ministry of the Diocese of Texas,” Hunt says. While this statement doesn’t relieve all the tensions, she further notes, “We’re getting to a place where we can talk together without thrusting each other out, and that’s a hopeful sign that I see in Texas.”
On the Lutheran side, the Gulf Coast Synod has been one of the quieter synods of the ELCA in this turbulent time. At present, no congregations under Rinehart’s care have left the ELCA, and less than five are showing any signs of possibly doing so. (Compare this to the neighboring Southwestern Texas Synod, which has a list of over 20 congregations considering leaving, or that have already left.) For the ELCA, Rinehart says, “We’re atypical.” Among the less than 500 congregations nationwide that have made moves to leave the ELCA (so far, less than 2 percent of all ELCA congregations have actually completed the process to leave), Rinehart notes that the process has left some of these congregations in enormous conflict. “We’ve really had to deal with none of that in our synod so far, and that makes us unusual.”
On the national level, some pastors who were removed from the clergy roster of the ELCA because they are gay have now been restored to their status as ministers. None of those gay clergy were in the Gulf Coast Synod. So far, there is no discernible group of new candidates for ministry coming forward as the result of the roster opening up to LGBT folk. Rinehart recognizes this may take some time. “Just because the institution has made this decision doesn’t mean it’s emotionally safe,” Rinehart says. “I have a good friend in another state who has said, ‘I’m just not sure if I’m ready to go through all the candidacy hoops—and then what does it look like for me in terms of finding a call [i.e., a church to serve] afterwards?’”
In both denominations, rites for blessing same-sex couples will take some time to develop, and Rinehart is unaware of couples coming forward to ask for such blessings. However, Rinehart says, “I have talked to a number of pastors who have said that gay and lesbian persons have come to their congregations as a result of [the new policies], perceiving [ELCA parishes] to be open and safe places.”
Summing up, Rinehart notes the reforming nature of the Lutheran tradition. “We started ordaining married priests 500 years ago, and it’s still being argued about in the Catholic Church today,” he says. “We started ordaining women in 1970. So it always astounds me when someone says, ‘Do you realize you’re breaking with tradition?’ My response is, ‘Yes, I do.’”
In the interest of full disclosure, regular OutSmart contributor Neil Ellis Orts was educated at the Episcopal Seminary of the Southwest and the Lutheran Seminary Program in the Southwest, and is an active member of Houston’s Salem Evangelical Lutheran Church.